Britain shelved plans for its own referendum on the EU constitution, driving a further stake into the heart of the stricken treaty and exposing a deep political rift with the European bloc.
The move rebuffs calls from Britain’s EU partners, particularly France and Germany, for other members of the 25-nation European Union to go on ratifying the text despite its rejection by French and Dutch voters last week.
“We see no point in proceeding at this moment,” Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in a statement to parliament, although he declined to rule out holding a referendum “should circumstances change” in the future.
“Until the consequences of France and the Netherlands being unable to ratify the treaty are clarified, it would not in our judgment now be sensible to set a date for second reading” of the legislation for the referendum, Straw said Monday.
Debate on the legislation was to have begun in the middle of June and most analysts had expected a referendum in early 2006.
Most analysts agree that the demise of the charter sets the stage for serious clashes over the very direction of the EU, which underwent its biggest ever expansion from 15 to 25 countries last year.
Britain’s responsibility is all the more acute as it prepares to assume the rotating EU presidency on July 1.
The EU’s Luxembourg presidency insisted the ratification process was “not dead,” while European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso sought to downplay the significance of London’s announcement.
Barroso said no definitive decisions had been made by any member state.
“So far, on the contrary, all the indications I have from all member states including the United Kingdom is that they want to discuss this issue in the European Council,” he said, referring to an upcoming June 16-17 summit of EU leaders in Brussels.
Polls in Britain show a strong majority against the treaty, which is aimed at streamlining and harmonizing how the European Union is structured and run as the bloc expands.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office said Britain needed time to reflect on the fallout of the Dutch and French votes but insisted it was not pre-empting any decisions European leaders may make at the Brussels summit.
Blair said in an interview published Monday the EU constitution was a “perfectly sensible way forward” even after Britain froze plans to hold a referendum on the landmark treaty.
Speaking to the Financial Times newspaper before flying to Washington, the British leader also urged the European Union to discuss economic reform.
“I think the constitution is a perfectly sensible way forward and at some point Europe is going to have to adopt rules for the future of Europe and if it doesn’t, it is not going to function properly,” said Blair, who is due to take over the rotating EU presidency from July 1.
Turning to economic reform, he acknowledged that any change could not fully dismantle the welfare systems enjoyed by France and Germany.
The Financial Times quoted Blair as insisting he was not suggesting Europe should “get rid of all this idea of having a social dimension to Europe”, which the newspaper said was a reference to its heavily funded welfare system and labour market regulation.
“I don’t believe that Europe should relinquish the social model, we should have a strong social model, but it has got to be one for today’s world,” the prime minister said.
As for speculation at home that a decision to suspend Britain’s referendum would enable Blair to stay in office for longer than planned, he responded: “It means nothing for anything, it augurs nothing in that significance at all, either way.”
The prime minister, who has pledged to step down before a fourth general election, also sidestepped any comment on whether he should set out a clear timetable for his departure
“I think my responsibility is to carry on governing and let everyone speculate as much as they want,” he said.
“I have just decided to let it all wash over me and carry on governing really.”
The comments were made before Blair flew out of Britain, bound for Washington where he is due to meet US President George W. Bush in a bid to win support for plans to help Africa and the climate at a G8 summit next month.
So far 10 European parliaments have ratified the constitution, including in Spain after Spaniards voted “yes” in a referendum.
France and the Netherlands were the first countries where voters rejected the constitution in a popular vote. Besides Britain, popular votes are due to be held in Luxembourg, Denmark, Poland, Portugal and Ireland.
Analysts have warned that Britain’s decision to put its referendum on ice could stir an avalance of indefinite postponements of votes planned in other countries.
Portugal and Poland both vowed to press ahead with their own referendums. Unlike in Britain, opinion polls in both those countries show small majorities in favour of the text.
In Lisbon, Foreign Minister Diogo Freitas do Amaral said Portugal intended to go ahead with a referendum on the constitution in October despite Britain’s decision.
He said Lisbon would only scrap its vote if EU leaders decide to cancel or suspend all other planned referendums on the charter at the summit.
“But we are not expecting that to happen,” he told a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who insisted Britain’s decision was “not an end, rather an interruption,” to the treaty.
Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld, who said that he had spoken to Straw, also insisted the treaty was alive and well.
“The position taken by the British does not change anything,” he said. “The British have delayed the ratification process, not renounced the treaty. The constitutional treaty is not dead.”
Rotfeld said he backed the idea of holding a referendum in Poland on October 9, when Poles are due to vote in the first round of a presidential election.
Nevertheless, echoing the views of many sceptics, Liam Fox, the opposition Conservative spokesman in Britain, said the British government must now press for the treaty to be declared dead and ratification brought to an end. — AFP