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Last Updated: Monday, 26 May, 2003, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
F-word victory not enough

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Presenting a united front on Europe
Winning a battle over the F-word is one thing - but it won't be enough for Tony Blair to ease his way out of a gathering storm over the future of Europe.

The UK was delighted that there is no mention of the word "federal" in the draft plans for the future of the European Union.

But even if that is a small victory, there is still plenty in the draft proposals for eurosceptics to seize on.

It is certainly true that the UK has had some victories in the debates over Europe's future.

Peter Hain describes it as "good progress".

But just as he admits that there are some issues upon which there will be future battles - social security for instance, and the fine detail of foreign policy - even the areas which the UK backs will be targeted by Mr Blair's opponents.

The position on foreign policy appears ambiguous, for instance.

The plans call for a "unreserved" backing for a common foreign policy - Britain insists it will still be able to veto initiatives it doesn't like.

Murmurings

The UK is unhappy about the role - and title - of the proposed EU foreign minister.

It is worried about the charter of rights being used to change UK domestic law.

And there will be murmurings about the election of an elected president for the European Commission.

Some of those concerns are shared by some in government.

But they are nothing on the venom with which others will view the draft constitution.

The Tories have already said it is a "step change" to a European superstate.

And the party has won support with its call for a referendum on the proposals.

Undercurrent

All this at a time when the last thing Tony Blair needs right now is another row over Europe.

He is now two weeks away from a momentous announcement on UK membership of the euro.

And the undercurrent to that is a battle with his chancellor over what the big decision will be.

So he will regard the convention row as an extremely irritating addition to his current difficulties.

The Tories, meanwhile, clearly believe they are on to something - even if we have another year ahead of us before we get to a final blueprint on the future of the EU.

'Tidying up'

They are backed by some Labour MPs - including pro-Europeans - with the Lib Dems saying they too could back calls for a referendum.

The repeated comment by Mr Hain that the constitution is simply a "tidying up" exercise which does not warrant a vote by the people of Britain has inflamed the row.

The Tories, meanwhile, appear surprisingly united on the issue - they want a referendum as soon as possible in the belief the eurosceptic public would oppose them and, in doing so, fatally wound the government.

They are doubling that call with demands for a poll on the euro, which they also believe would end in defeat for the government.

And they are clearly enjoying the fight and their new found cause.

This has landed the government with a major job of persuasion to do if voters are not to run away with the idea that they are being denied a say on the very future of the country.

Buckle?

The problem with EU documents like the constitution, however, is that they are designed precisely to allow everyone to interpret them the way they wish.

For European federalists, it may indeed be presented as a blueprint for an eventual United States of Europe.

For the more nation-state minded, it can be presented as a clarification and simplification of the role of the EU.

And there's probably enough evidence to allow any shading of view along that line.

Tony Blair clearly has yet another major campaign of persuasion ahead of him to win around a sceptical public.

But, as his recent behaviour over Iraq has shown, he is in no frame of mind to buckle.




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