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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 July, 2003, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
EU primed for 'culture change'
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Blair says the draft constitution is a "pretty good outcome" for Britain
Britain has a "fantastic opportunity" to shift the direction of the Europe when new member states join the European Union, Tony Blair has said.

The prime minister told a "super committee" of Parliament's most senior MPs that the EU had to change the way it worked to make European enlargement work.

Urged by questioners to "trust the people", Mr Blair again rejected calls for a referendum on the draft EU constitution, which will embody the reforms.

He called the draft constitution a "pretty good outcome" for Britain and said referendums should only be held for fundamental constitutional changes.

That just was not the case with the current proposals, he argued.

Withdrawal risk?

Mr Blair warned of the dangers of becoming some kind of "semi-detached member" of Europe.

"A large part of the political spectrum wants us to retreat to the margins, which would be a disaster for us," he went on.

Questioned by the House of Commons Liaison Committee, Mr Blair outlined what he saw as the advantages of the EU growing to include 25 nations.

These 10 countries who are joining the EU are going to alter the culture and spirit of Europe
Tony Blair
"These 10 countries who are joining the EU are going to alter the culture and spirit of Europe, probably in the direction that Britain wants."

The accession nations were in favour of a strong alliance with the United States, wanted economic reform in Europe and were opposed to creating a European super-state, he argued.

But that opportunity would only be taken if Britain "got in there and make our case with confidence".

Parliament decides

The draft constitution has been agreed by the Convention on the Future of Europe.

It will be debated at an inter-governmental conference later this year but the Conservatives are calling for a referendum.

Mr Blair said: "I think overall the convention was a pretty good outcome for Britain, and the changes we want I think we can secure."

Resisting the referendum demands, he argued: "The proper time to have a referendum whether locally or nationally is where the basic constitutional method of governance is being changed and that is not the case with the outcome of the convention."

The issue was important, he said, but Britain had a parliamentary system which did not mean there were referendums on every important issue.

Tory MP Nicholas Winterton challenged the prime minister, saying: "Will you trust the people and if you do not get your way at the inter-governmental conference, will you give the people the opportunity to vote in a referendum on this issue?"

Mr Blair's position remained unchanged, with him responding: "I certainly do trust the people and we have a system of parliamentary elections."

Euro ambitions

Labour MP John McFall, the chairman of the Treasury select committee, urged the prime minister to show more leadership on the euro.

The government was in favour of joining the euro in principle, said Mr Blair, but the "timeline" of entry had to be decided on the economic conditions.

"The economics have got to be right because that at the end of the day is the question the British people will ask," he said.

"Considerable progress" had been made on the convergence with Europe, said Mr Blair, and ruling out joining on political grounds would have a "devastating impact" on investment.

He appealed to pro-Europeans not to spend time arguing among themselves when the "real debate" was raging elsewhere as Eurosceptics pushed for Britain to pull out of Europe altogether.

He refused to reveal his aspiration for the date of British euro entry.

The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"This is a blueprint for a more ambitious, more powerful, European Union"

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