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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 September, 2003, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Setting out the stall

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The UK Government has laid out its "red lines" for the final stage of the negotiations on the European Union constitution, signalling that a hard round of talks is in prospect between now and December and maybe beyond.

But the signs are that although the talks will be tough, they will not be impossible. A British official said that in previous treaty talks, differences were ironed out and there was no talk of a veto. He did not expect such talk this time either.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing
Valery Giscard d'Estaing hammered out draft treaty
As is perhaps appropriate for red lines, the issue of European defence heads the British list and might be the most difficult to solve.

The draft treaty calls for a mutual EU defence pact. Britain argues that it would duplicate and eventually undermine Nato. It's part of a wider argument about the future of defence.

France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg have recently agreed to set up a new headquarters unit for EU defence work near Brussels, thereby perhaps laying down a challenge to Nato in years to come.

Britain also wants to ensure that any decisions on an EU military operation (whether humanitarian or peacekeeping) would be by unanimity. Otherwise, it fears, groups of countries keen to develop the EU's independent role could get a majority together to declare an operation an EU affair.

Britain is also worried about the role of the proposed EU "Foreign Minister" (a title it might nevertheless eventually accept). He or she would have to be strictly accountable to member states and would have authority to act for all only where all were agreed.

Other red lines

The other red lines concentrate on defending areas where London feels that the draft constitution infringes national sovereignty by allowing too much qualified majority voting. They are:

  • Treaty changes: The draft says that European heads of state and government could by unanimous vote change the unanimity requirement in policy areas to qualified majority. This would, says the British white paper on the issue, violate the rights of national parliaments to approve treaty changes.

  • Tax: the draft would allow for majority voting on measures to tackle cross border tax fraud. The UK Government thinks this would allow the EU into the tax field by the back door.

  • Criminal law: Britain (supported by Ireland) wants to protect the common law system against majority voting which could introduce different procedures.

  • Social Security: the argument here is that the EU should legislate only by unanimity given the complexities of each country's support systems.

  • Own Resources: this is the name given to the EU's right to certain revenues and Britain wants any changes to be agreed by unanimity, thereby also protecting its much criticised annual rebate.

    A Foreign Office official said: "The convention (which drew up the draft) did a good job in general terms.

    "We like the idea of a permanent presidency and agree that there should be an extension of majority voting into some new areas suggested but not into all. Basically, our objections can be written down on one sheet of paper."

    The British government is not actively opposing the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which at one time it was unhappy about. The charter is now clearly linked to EU law only and that appears to satisfy London.

    Others have problems too

    It is not only Britain which has its problems with the text. At an initial discussion by foreign ministers in Italy last weekend, most governments indicated some unhappiness.

    The British objections and those of other member states show that, despite the hopes of the EU Convention chairman Valery Giscard D'Estaing and the German Government that the draft treaty be accepted more or less as it is, this will not be possible.

    "What matters is not that it is done early but that it is done right
    British foreign office official
    Everybody knows this, which is shown by the schedule of talks. After the process known as the Intergovernmental Conference is kicked off in Rome on 4 October, there will be eight negotiating sessions involving foreign ministers (who will be the main negotiators) and two summits, in October and December.

    The Italian Presidency hopes that it will all be wrapped up at the second summit, thereby allowing for a second Treaty of Rome.

    "What matters is not that it is done early but that it is done right," was the comment of one British official. .

    The main objection among the smaller states is over constitutional changes. Portugal and others do not like the idea of a permanent presidency. The present arrangement, under which the presidency rotates each six months, gives smaller countries a real voice in the direction of the EU's affairs.

    Spain and Poland do not like proposed changes in the definition of a qualified majority. They feel they would lose out as the current arrangement favours middle sized countries like them.

    Such objections are a part of the mix. They will need to be addressed but they will not necessarily halt what is likely to be an unstoppable process.

    The BBC's James Landale
    "Setting out those key areas where they say national government should stay in charge"

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