Britain told to choose between US and Europe

THE former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing raised the temperature in the debate over the new EU constitution yesterday by declaring Britain had to choose between a future with Europe or its special relationship with the United States.

In a series of controversial statements, Mr d’Estaing, who is chairing the convention drawing up the blueprint for an enlarged EU, insisted there were two prerequisites for the constitution: a common foreign policy and a stable presidency.

His remarks provided further ammunition to those calling for a referendum on the issue, fearing that the proposals put forward by the convention will mean Britain losing a swathe of sovereign powers as it becomes subsumed into a United States of Europe.

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Mr d’Estaing tried to allay British fears about the draft text of the constitution, insisting it would propose neither harmonisation of taxes nor a federal system.

"The idea of offending or destroying Britain is nonsense," he told Breakfast with Frost. "I did set out at the beginning of the convention that I would not ignore at all the British point of view - even the British sensitivity."

And he promised that the post-enlargement Europe would be "stronger, better organised", and one in which the powers of the Commission, the heads of states and national parliaments were clearly defined.

"We need democratic legitimacy and the democratic legitimacy is enshrined in our national parliaments," he said. "I am in favour of the very clear definition of the whole of the European institutions on one side and national institutions on the other side."

Mr d’Estaing said Britain’s problems with Europe stemmed from its long-standing ambivalence towards Brussels.

"Britain never considered Europe as a full option. It wanted to be in Europe and to have all the options ... the special relationship with the US. I would say if you want as a wish to be a leading country in Europe … I think you should make up your mind in the next ten years," he said.

But the former president’s call for a common foreign policy and a president of the council could put him on collision course with Tony Blair when the heads of state meet later this year to agree the new constitution. Mr Blair has been arguing for an elected president answerable to the member states, not the EU Commission. The Prime Minister is also losing the battle for the new EU foreign minister to be answerable to national parliaments rather than Brussels.

The draft text of the constitution, setting out the reforms necessary when the EU expands next year from 15 to 25 states, will be published on 20 June. A special conference will then be held to discuss the document which can only be ratified if there is the unanimous approval of all 25 member states.

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The Tories stepped up their calls for a referendum on the issue, with Michael Ancram, the shadow foreign secretary, claiming Mr Blair was in the process of the "serial surrendering" of sovereign powers at the convention.

Interviewed by the ePolitix website, Mr Ancram warned that the convention would create a legal personality, which was the prerequisite of a state, set up a full-blown constitution, and take control of foreign policy, defence policy and home policy including asylum.

"All of these are crucial areas which define a sovereign nation and the moment they are taken away that nation’s sovereignty is gone," he said.

But Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary, who is Britain’s lead envoy on the convention, insisted the negotiations were "going well" in Britain’s favour.

"The facts are we have achieved over the last few days a lot of the things which we thought we would but which the Tories and their friends in the media said we wouldn’t," Mr Hain said.

"They said we would lose our seat on the Security Council in the United Nations. We are going to keep it with Britain’s position protected. They said foreign and security policy would be decided by Brussels. It isn’t. Britain’s veto remains there. They said we were going to have a European diplomatic service. We won’t. I could go on and on."

Mr Hain also underlined the government’s opposition to a referendum, saying that the issue was best dealt with in parliament.

"Let’s just calm down and see how this goes. So far we have made very good progress," he said. "There are still some tough issues to negotiate but I am confident we can get a good result for Britain in the end."

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The government’s refusal to consider a referendum may be challenged in the Lords, it emerged yesterday.

Lord Blackwell, a former adviser to Lady Thatcher and John Major, is promising to table an amendment to the government bill sanctioning the new constitution requiring a referendum to be held before the proposals could be enforced in the UK.