Britain delays a vote on EU constitution indefinitely


LONDON - The British government has decided to postpone indefinitely its plans to hold a referendum on the new European constitution, effectively burying the document that was rejected last week by voters in France and the Netherlands.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons yesterday that the constitution was "a sensible set of rules for the enlargement of the European Union," but that there was "no point" in proceeding with a referendum early next year in the face of rejections by French and Dutch voters.

Britain does not want to be blamed for driving the final nail into the coffin of the ill-fated constitution, so despite repeated calls from the opposition Conservative Party to pronounce the document dead, Straw refused.

"It is not for the UK alone to decide the future of the treaty," he said.

Members of Parliament ridiculed the charter - several referred to it as "Monty Python's dead parrot" - but Straw said the government reserved the right to call a referendum at a later date "should circumstances change."

That, however, is considered extremely unlikely.

Britain's decision to abandon its referendum ignores the appeals of French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and senior EU officials to allow the ratification process to proceed.

Thus far, 10 of the EU's 25 members have approved the constitution, but only one, Spain, did so by referendum. The others ratified it by parliamentary votes.

10 for, 2 against

"Ten countries have voted for the constitution, two against - and it is the right but also the duty of every country to have its say," said Bela Anda, a spokesman for Schroeder's office.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that each member country "should have the opportunity to say what it thinks."

But Conservative shadow foreign secretary Liam Fox said last week's twin rejections had repudiated "the political dinosaurs at the helm of France and Germany," and called on Straw to declare the constitution dead.

'Case for the morgue'

Fox, who also is a physician, said, "I may no longer practice medicine, but I can tell a corpse when I see one, and this constitution is a case for the morgue if ever I saw one."

Although Prime Minister Tony Blair's government supported the constitution, the likelihood of British voters approving it was always slim.

If voters had rejected it, Blair almost certainly would have been forced to resign. The votes in France and the Netherlands, two of the EU's founding members, let Blair off the hook.

Some analysts suggested the French and Dutch "no" votes last week strengthened Blair's voice in the debate over the future shape of Europe.

Blair - who is on his way to Washington for a White House meeting today - has long argued for economic reform of the bloc and has resisted the federalist ambitions of Schroeder and Chirac, who view a politically strengthened EU as a global counterbalance to the United States.

Franco-German axis

Simon Bulmer of Manchester University, an expert on Britain's relationship with the EU, said the Franco-German axis - the traditional engine of closer European integration - has been damaged.

"There is a situation where these two states with their traditional central position on European integration have been weakened," said Bulmer, adding that last year's addition of 10 new EU members helped tilt some influence in Britain's favor. Britain has long been seen as keen to dilute the bloc's core power base through enlargement.

The pressure now will be on Poland, the next big country planning a referendum.

Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld insisted his country would go ahead with the vote.

"We should continue this journey, because the year that we have been in the European Union has proved to be profitable for Poland, for Poland's growth," he said.

"The sooner the better," he said, adding that he would like to see it take place Oct. 9 along with presidential elections to ensure a high turnout.

But Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, the speaker of the Polish parliament, seemed to pull back from that commitment, saying that parliament would determine the manner of ratification later this month.

Critical moment

Next month, Britain will take over the rotating presidency of the EU at one of the most critical moments in the union's history.

"The EU has to come to terms with the forces of globalization in a way which maximizes prosperity, employment and social welfare," Straw told Parliament.

"The EU does now face a period of difficulty. In working in our interests and the union's interests, we must not act in a way which undermines the EU's strengths and the achievements of five decades," he said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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