- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

LONDON — The British government, defying demands by French and German leaders, yesterday suspended indefinitely plans for a national referendum next year on the European Union’s floundering constitution.

In the wake of last week’s emphatic rejection of the document by voters in France and the Netherlands, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament that “it would not, in our judgment, now be sensible” to go ahead with a similar vote in Britain.

“We are in uncertain times,” said a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair, “and we do not proceed until we have gotten certainty.”

In a statement to Parliament that lasted barely six minutes, Mr. Straw said, “We see no point in proceeding at this moment” on a vote on the constitution next spring, a vote most polls showed the government losing.

But, Mr. Straw quickly added, “We reserve completely the right to bring back [the necessary legislation] providing for a UK referendum should circumstances change.”

Prospects for such a change seem bleak.

The constitution must be ratified by all 25 EU nations, and the thumbs-down from French and Dutch voters may doom the constitution to oblivion.

President Bush and Mr. Blair are to meet at the White House today, and are expected to announce a joint initiative costing the United States $674 million to help an estimated 14 million people threatened by famine in Africa, the Associated Press reported the White House as saying.

The announcement appeared intended to take the sting out of Mr. Bush’s opposition to Mr. Blair’s more expensive plan for doubling aid to Africa.

The referendum freeze was seen as a stiff rebuff to French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who insisted at their own miniature summit in Berlin last weekend that the constitutional ratification process continue.

Each of the European Union’s 25 member states “must be able to express itself in its turn,” said a spokesman for Mr. Chirac.

Ten EU countries, accounting for about one-half of the bloc’s population, have approved the treaty, but the rejection by founding EU members France and the Netherlands and now the postponement by powerful Britain have thrown the whole process into chaos.

It could get worse.

The Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Poland and Portugal are among the EU countries that have yet to decide on the treaty, and all are showing signs of reneging on promises to hold referendums on the issue.

Franco-German pressure is expected to continue on the undecided members at a two-day summit of EU leaders in Brussels starting June 16 — a conference that is shaping up as an exercise in crisis management.

“The EU does now face a period of difficulty,” Mr. Straw said.

Nor is political life in the European Union destined to get any easier for Mr. Blair’s government.

Britain takes over the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency from Luxembourg on July 1, and the animosity over the imploding constitutional drive is likely to make the next half-year a tricky time for the British prime minister.

A French spokesman told the British Broadcasting Corp. that Britain would bear “great responsibility” for finding a way out of the crisis when it takes over the presidency.

Back home, Mr. Blair is facing demands that he declare the treaty dead and buried.

Liam Fox, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, told Parliament, “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.”

For Mr. Blair’s own political well-being, a buried EU constitution would be something of a mixed blessing.

On one hand, calling off the referendum would spare him the humiliation of the almost certain defeat at the hands of Britain’s voters, a defeat that virtually every opinion poll has forecast since the idea was first floated months ago.

On the other hand, however, the sudden demise of the constitutional referendum could spark a renewed challenge for the premiership by the man who covets the job, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Mr. Blair’s treasury chief.

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