Blair faces EU ambush over 'rewritten' constitutionBy Patrick Hennessy, Political Editor (Filed: 09/05/2004)
Tony Blair was plunged into a fresh and damaging row over Europe yesterday when a new 130-page draft of the European constitution was shown to contain more threats to the Government's "red line" positions defending Britain's national interests.
The unexpectedly tough dossier, drawn up by the Irish government, which at present holds the EU's six-monthly presidency, proposes significant increases in the power of the European Commission at the expense of member states.
There was consternation in Whitehall last night and the plans were seized on by the Tories. Michael Ancram, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, called them another attempt to speed up the creation of a European super state.
Among the amendments are moves to greatly strengthen the powers of the proposed EU "foreign minister" - an unelected commissioner - enabling him or her to give orders to the foreign ministers of member countries, including Jack Straw, and to control the EU corps of diplomats.
The ability of Britain and other member states to veto the appointment of the president and vice-president of the European Central Bank also comes under renewed threat, as does the independence of the bank itself.
The powers of the European Parliament in rejecting the Commission's budget - itself a contentious issue - would be greatly increased and there are even possible threats to Britain's right to levy taxes independently.
More decisions across a range of areas should, according to the proposed amendments, be taken by qualified majority voting, effectively removing the ability of Britain and other countries to wield a veto.
The dossier's proposals are likely to dominate a meeting in Paris today between Mr Blair and the French president Jacques Chirac, their first face-to-face talks since the Prime Minister announced a referendum on the constitution in a surprise U-turn last month.
As ministers attempted to digest the implications of the dossier, the Tories used it to attack the Government. Mr Ancram said: "This is another example of European integrationists using this draft constitution to speed up the process of creating a single European state . . . one more reason why we not only oppose the details of this draft constitution but the constitution itself."
The draft will go forward to a meeting of EU foreign ministers this month. Any proposals they cannot agree will have to be ruled on by a full-scale EU summit in June, at which leaders, including Mr Blair, hope formally to agree the new constitution.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "This document is the basis for negotiations which are going to be taken forward on the European constitution. The text reflects some good progress towards some of the things we want - but there is still more for us to negotiate.
We want to take the negotiations forward to an agreement, provided all of our red lines are respected." Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, denied that the draft contained major changes. His spokesman claimed that last year's original draft remained "largely, nine tenths intact".
Some British ministers, however, see big problems for the constitution, even before the latest moves to boost the power of Brussels.
The biggest single issue - voting rights after the admission of 10 new member states - is still to be tackled properly after it caused the collapse of last year's Brussels summit, which was meant to agree the constitution.
Mr Straw has warned that without full-scale agreement from all EU governments, there cannot be a referendum in Britain next year.
In a separate move, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, opened a fresh front against Brussels by warning that the Commission was moving again to increase its budget by the "back door" after its first attempt was rebuffed.
In a letter sent to to every member of the Cabinet and seen by The Sunday Telegraph, Paul Boateng, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, claimed that Brussels is likely to attempt to have its £40 billion budget increased by negotiating a series of separate rises with individual groups of ministers from member states.
He described the Commission's move as "unrealistic and unacceptable" and warned ministers: "We understand the Commission is now in the process of presenting specific policy and spending proposals to be discussed in sectoral councils.
"It will be vital that - at all levels and in all fora where EU spending is discussed - the Government continues to press these principles and defend our position on the need for budget discipline and on the need to limit Commission spending to areas where it has clear competence. We must not allow our consistent and robust position . . . to be undermined."
Mr Boateng's letter underlined the scale of the differences between Britain and Brussels as Mr Blair prepared to meet Mr Chirac, who is understood to be annoyed that Mr Blair's referendum announcement puts him under pressure to do the same.
8 May 2004: Blair ready for another row with EU over new constitution demands
3 May 2004: Britain could join EU 'rearguard' if voters turn against the constitution