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Britain Says 'Later' to Referendum on EU Constitution

June 07, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Britain on Monday suspended a referendum on the European Union constitution, dealing what many analysts regarded as a mortal wound to the document after French and Dutch voters rejected it last week.

Speaking to Parliament amid jeers from the largely anti-Europe opposition benches, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the Labor government still believed in the objectives of the proposed constitution and considered its passage in Britain's national interest. But he said putting it to a referendum after it had already been roundly voted down by two key member states made no sense.

Ten EU nations have ratified the document, but it needs to be approved by all 25 members to take effect.

Straw did not rule out a vote sometime in the future, if it appeared that the document could regain solid backing.

"The constitutional treaty is the property of the European Union as a whole, and it is now for European leaders to reach a conclusion on how to deal with the situation," Straw said, announcing the decision to abandon legislation that would have set up a vote next year.

The British decision was widely viewed as inevitable. After the constitution's defeat by France and the Netherlands, two of the founding members of the EU, the British public cooled even more to the idea of the charter.

Although abandoning the referendum plays well in domestic politics, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government does not wish Britain to be seen as the state that finally scuttles the constitution. The decision to postpone a vote comes at an awkward time for Blair, when Britain is about to take its turn at assuming the six-month rotating EU presidency.

The constitution, with 465 articles, is meant to streamline how the enlarged 25-state bloc would govern itself and represent European interests globally.

Straw said the final decision on the future of the constitution should be discussed by the entire EU when its ministers meet in Brussels next week.

By delaying the referendum, however, Blair defied the wishes of French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and other European officials who want the ratification process to continue, hoping that the setbacks in France and the Netherlands might eventually be overturned.

"Ten countries have voted for the constitutional process, two against, and it is the right but also the duty of every country to be able to have its say," Schroeder spokesman Bela Anda said Monday, according to Associated Press.

Polish officials, meanwhile, said their country's ratification vote would probably proceed.

In an editorial Monday, The Times of London accused Schroeder and Chirac of engaging in "political pass-the-parcel." It suggested they want the process to continue only to "share the blame for the failure of this venture by having other governments endure the intense embarrassment suffered in Paris and The Hague."

Liam Fox, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, argued that Straw had not gone far enough. The government should have categorically ruled out any vote on the constitution because "the treaty itself is dead," he declared.

Even Kenneth Clarke, a Conservative former chancellor of the exchequer who has alienated some members of his party by championing closer alignment with the EU, said, "People would think you were dotty if you went ahead with a referendum on a treaty which plainly is no more."

Blair has argued that the rejections in France and the Netherlands, and the lukewarm reception elsewhere, is a reflection of economic insecurity and underlying unhappiness with the EU in its present form. He has said the EU needs to win trust by delivering practical benefits to the people of Europe, particularly by taking steps toward a more liberal economic policy.

Straw reiterated that position Monday. "The EU has to come to terms with the forces of globalization in a way which maximizes prosperity, employment and social welfare," he said.

The crisis could be a silver lining for Blair: a reason not to step down too early as prime minister in favor of Chancellor Gordon Brown. Peter Mandelson, EU trade commissioner and a Blair loyalist, told ITV news that Blair should stay longer than the one or two years that is generally expected, to help clear up the EU mess. "He has a great contribution to make," Mandelson said.

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