Sunday, February 4, 2007

Plan Merkel sets Britain up for EU clash

AMBITIOUS plans by Chancellor Angela Merkel to revive the defunct European Union constitution have set Britain on a collision course with Berlin and most of the EU’s 27 member states.

Merkel has promised to resurrect the “core” of the constitution — whose provisions include the creation of an EU foreign minister and the scrapping of national vetoes on justice and home affairs — despite its rejection by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

Her position conflicts with the British preference for a “mini-treaty” to streamline voting rules and end the rotation of the EU presidency every six months.

New tensions emerged last week after Gordon Brown, the chancellor, was reported to have indicated that he would not even consider such technical changes without a promise that the constitution was off the agenda.

Government sources confirmed this weekend that Britain did not believe a formal constitution was necessary for the EU to work efficiently with 27 members. Britain also wants to avoid changes that would encroach on sensitive national interests such as defence policy.

“Several British ministers have gone on record saying the constitution in its current form is not a viable option. The challenge now is to agree on some sensible institutional reforms that suit all 27 member states,” a senior British official said.

Burying the constitution — recently described by John Reid, the home secretary, as a “dead parrot” — would release Tony Blair and his successor from the promise of a potentially damaging referendum.

Britain’s stance may anger the 18 countries who have ratified the constitution. At a meeting in Madrid this month, the 18 “friends of the constitution”, plus Portugal and Ireland, reaffirmed support for the document and discussed expanding it to cover climate change and immigration.

Merkel will try to break the deadlock during Germany’s six-month presidency of the EU before a summit in June.

Britain’s opposition is shared by Poland and the Czech Republic. The recent dismissal of the constitution by Mirek Topolanek, the Czech prime minister, as a “pile of crap” does not bode well for negotiations.

Merkel must wait for the outcome of the French elections to assess her prospects. Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate, has promised a new referendum in 2009. Nicolas Sarkozy, of the centre right, has called for a simplified treaty in 2008, with a beefed-up version to follow later.