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Monday, 11 December, 2000, 18:24 GMT
Election overshadows Nice treaty
European leaders at the Nice summit
Nice had more to do with elections
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair summed it up as he left the EU summit in Nice.

This, he suggested, was a treaty on which he could fight the next general election.

On the surface, the Nice summit was all about enlargement of the EU to include the former Communist countries - an historic moment in the development of Europe.

But for Mr Blair and Tory leader William Hague it was overwhelmingly about the next general election.

And they mapped out their positions during the heated Commons debate in the wake of the summit.

Mr Hague claimed the prime minister had taken three more steps towards a European superstate and declared he would not have signed the treaty.

Tory leader William Hague
Hague warned of superstate
Mr Blair insisted he had protected Britain's national interest and that what the Tories really wanted was complete withdrawal from the EU.

"We have set out why we believe the treaty is in the interests of this country and in the interests of Europe. You have set out very firmly that you would block the Treaty," he told Mr Hague.

He delivered a withering assault on what he dubbed Mr Hague's "idiocy" over Europe and declared: "Do you want to be taken seriously by anyone in Britain or elsewhere?

"The true agenda of a large part of your party that you have given in to is to have this country next door to the exit sign in Europe.

Three steps

"That would be a disaster for Britain, a disaster for Europe. It is wrong and we shall not do it and this is an argument we shall win because it is in the true national interest of Britain."

Mr Hague countered by insisting "You emerged with a treaty that takes Europe in the wrong direction and a Conservative Government will not ratify it as it stands.

"If the Government wishes to sign up to these three major steps ... they should first consult the people of this country in a referendum.

"You have missed the best opportunity of your premiership to put the case for the kind of Europe supported by the majority of people in this country.

"Instead this summit has represented three more major steps on the road to a superstate."

And this is the battle field on which the general election will be fought.

You emerged with a treaty that takes Europe in the wrong direction

Tory leader William Hague
Both positions are caricatures of the parties' positions, but the two leaders clearly believe the fine detail of European policy is a huge turn off for most voters.

Byzantine arguments over the re-weighting of national votes and the operation of the single market will sway few votes one way or the other.

Crunch issues such as the harmonisation of taxation and the creation of a Euro army whip up a little more enthusiasm - but mostly because of their symbolic resonance.

For or against

What the European argument currently appears to be boiling down to is whether you are "for" or "against" the EU.

It is a simplified contest, which many believe has been whipped up by anti-European influences in the media, but it could prove pivotal at the next election.

So Mr Blair is painted as the man who would take Britain into a United States of Europe and Mr Hague is cast as the leader wanting to pull the country out of the entire project.

And many MPs fear it is an argument that will be ever more simplified as election day approaches.

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See also:

11 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Blair declares Nice success
07 Dec 00 | Europe
Fears of a European superstate
11 Dec 00 | Europe
Nice agreement at-a-glance
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