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Last Updated: Friday, 26 March, 2004, 12:33 GMT
Blair's EU constitution challenge
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Plans for the creation of an EU constitution were always likely to return to harry Tony Blair after they were driven into the sand last December.

And after the EU summit in Brussels they are set to erupt just in time for the European elections in June.

EU flags
The EU constitution is back on track

With a considerable number of newspapers deeply sceptical, if not downright hostile, that could land the prime minister with a significant electoral headache.

When the controversial proposals failed at the end of last year, Tony Blair may have been tempted to breath a sigh of relief.

The Tories' claim that it was a major step towards the creation of a European super state and their demand for a referendum before it was agreed, appeared - if judged by newspaper headlines - to be striking a chord with voters.

And despite the prime minister's support for such a document, it was widely believed he would be happy to see the entire project delayed until after the next general election.

Voting strengths

But now, thanks in large part to the ousting of the conservative government in Spain, things appear back on track.

EU leaders agreed on Thursday night to broker a deal in time for it to go before the European summit in June - just a week after the European Parliament elections on 10 June.

If the row rumbles on it could threaten to become an issue at the next general election

Both the incoming socialist administration in Madrid and the current Polish government - which opposed the previous constitution - are said to be ready to accept a compromise on the relative voting strengths of states in the enlarged EU, the issue which torpedoed the original plan.

If that sticking point is overcome, possibly at the current summit, it could clear the way for an acceptable proposal to be put before the meeting in June.

Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, says the atmosphere has changed.

And on Friday Mr Blair said there was a "strong sense" that leaders want to get an agreement and move on.

He acknowledged the accusations he faces from the Conservatives and parts of the media about giving away controls over key decisions.

But he insisted: "In respect of tax, or foreign policy, or defence, or the British criminal justice system, these things will remain the prerogative of the British Parliament and the British people."

Bad news

So, the government may well be locked in a political battle with the Tories over the constitution in the run-up to the European elections, which happen on the same day as a host of local polls.

Tony Blair
Blair says EU leaders want to get a deal quickly
However, it may well be that ministers will quietly welcome that timing on the basis it will get all the bad news over with in one day.

They will then pick themselves up and move towards the general election, probably just a year later, with, they hope, the issue behind them.

And, of course, it could be worse. If the row rumbled on it could threaten to become an issue at the next general election - probably just as Tony Blair is set to take on the EU presidency in the summer of 2005.

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