- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair faced growing demands yesterday to call off Britain’s planned referendum on the constitution for the European Union, as the pact’s political implosion has put Mr. Blair’s own future in doubt.

The chaos after the rejection of the constitution by French and Dutch voters this week could embolden Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Mr. Blair’s longtime Labor Party rival, to seize his chance at power sooner rather than later.

“The verdict of these referendums now raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe,” said Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who is expected to defy EU officials in Brussels next week by urging a delay, perhaps permanent, in Britain’s constitution vote.

Europe’s political class tried to put a brave face on the overwhelming French and Dutch rejections of the constitution, designed to improve the inner workings of the 25-nation bloc and increase its clout around the globe.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso urged the 15 countries that have yet to act to proceed with ratification, warning against “unilateral decisions” before an EU summit in Brussels June 16 and 17.

“We’re in a period of reflection,” he told reporters at the European Parliament. “If there is a problem, we have to look at it collectively.”

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a strong backer of the constitution, warned against any “overreaction” to the French and Dutch votes.

“I will not give up in working for this constitution, for a united Europe, which we need,” he told reporters during a visit to Luxembourg.

The constitution’s near collapse across the English Channel promises a dose of humiliation for Mr. Blair, who insisted during Britain’s recent election campaign that a referendum would be held regardless of what the other 24 EU nations decided.

That vote had been expected next spring, a timetable that appeared to sit well with Mr. Brown’s own.

Opinion polls show British voters solidly against the EU constitution, and the chancellor is not eager to get tarred as head of a government that, as widely predicted, would lose an up-or-down vote on the issue.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Straw is leading a group of ministers who are pushing the prime minister to dump plans for a referendum.

Mr. Blair’s office insists that a final decision is unlikely before the two-day EU gathering in Brussels, which is shaping up rapidly as a damage-control summit.

The referendum quandary has dragged the future of the prime minister’s political career back to the fore.

Robin Cook, who quit as Mr. Blair’s foreign secretary to protest the war in Iraq, rejected suggestions that the constitutional crisis had let Mr. Blair “off the hook” on his promise to leave office before the next election.

“The disappearance through a trap door of the British referendum has removed one obvious date in the political calendar when it might have been convenient for the prime minister to make his departing bow,” Mr. Cook wrote in London’s Evening Standard newspaper.

“But it does not alter any of the political realities that prompted him to offer to go before the next election,” he added.

Those realities include Mr. Blair’s slumping popularity, as seen in his sharply diminished parliamentary majority after last month’s vote, and the unpopularity of the Iraq war among many in Mr. Blair’s own Labor Party.

Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown have been feuding for years over the timing of the latter’s succession to the prime minister’s post. Strengthening Mr. Blair’s hand was the knowledge that his rival would be in no hurry to move into 10 Downing St. until the referendum was safely out of the way.

But with the vote now all but dropped, said London Daily Mail political analyst Graeme Wilson, “there will be intense pressure from Mr. Brown for a clear new timetable for his accession to power.”

Mr. Blair also faces a politically perilous six-month stint when he assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1, even as the union faces perhaps its biggest crisis in its history.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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