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Europe

Britain Delays EU Referendum

Britain's government reportedly delayed plans for a referendum on the embattled EU constitution Monday, a relief for Prime Minister Tony Blair at home but a calculated risk for him across the Channel.

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Lacking a national one, they're not quite ready for an EU constitution

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was expected to announce Monday that Britain will freeze a referendum on the treaty after its rejection at the polls in France and the Netherlands last week. Straw is to give his decision before parliament in the afternoon, choosing his words carefully to avoid making Britain appear as the one to kill the treaty.

British newspapers said Straw would again insist on the need to respect the results of such plebiscites and announce a temporary freeze of the bill which would have allowed the referendum to proceed in Britain in early 2006. Such a move would allow time to determine the future of the constitutional treaty.

Houses of Parliament, London

A view over the river Thames from the Houses of Parliament in Westminster Palace in London

On Thursday, London asked Paris and The Hague to spell out what their vision of its future was.

"A period of reflection"

"We believe that it is necessary to have a period of reflection in the lead up to discussions at the Council of Ministers meeting," said a spokeswoman from Blair's offices at 10 Downing Street, referring to a meeting of leaders from the European Union in Brussels on June 16-17.

Asked whether the Saturday talks between Chirac and Schröder had affected Britain's standpoint on how to proceed with the constitution, the spokeswoman said: "There is nothing further to add. That is our position at the moment."

Chirac und Schröder freunndschaftlich

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, center, hugs French President Jacques Chirac, left, as Schröder's wife Doris looks on

The French and German leaders, meeting in Berlin, agreed that the ratification process of the landmark document for the 25-nation bloc should go on after voters in France and the Netherlands voted against it. Every EU member country has "the right and the duty" to take its own decision on the constitution, said a German government spokesman after the two statesmen met over dinner to plot a way out of the crisis.

Germany has ratified the proposed text, although no referendum was used, and so have nine others of the 25 member states, but the damage caused by the "no" votes in France and the Netherlands is severe.

It is likely to be further compounded by Straw's speech before parliament.

On the home front, freezing the referendum would spare Blair a crushing defeat. A poll published Friday by The Sun showed 72 percent of Britons would reject the draft in a referendum, up from 57 previously.

Britischer Premierminister Tony Blair auf dem Weg zum wählen

British Prime Minister Tony Blair

Such a verdict would probably cause Blair to step down as prime minister next year amid mounting political problems since his unpopular decision to join the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

London's decision could cause problems

But, ten days before the European Council meets in Brussels, and less than a month before Britain assumes the rotating European Union presidency on July 1, London's expected decision is likely to bother some of its EU partners.

Most of them have called for forging ahead with the ratification process, echoing the remarks of European Commission President Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, who is hostile to any "unilateral decision" by a member state.

European affairs analyst Richard Whitman said it was "not a smart idea when you are about to take the job of presidency to go into that having upset a number of key interlocutors."

However, Whitman, who heads the European program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, predicted the British decision "will likely trigger a small avalanche of other countries that will suspend" ratification.

Already Denmark and Portugal have suggested they would suspend ratification, said Aurore Wanlin, a researcher at the London-based Centre for European Reform. Ireland no longer seems so sure about its own plans for a referendum. "I can't say. We will wait and see what comes out of the European Council meeting in mid-June," Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said Friday.

Wanlin said meanwhile that "you also have commissioners in Brussels who have said in private that it would be too risky to continue with the ratification process because a series of no votes would endanger Europe."

Blair isolated?

Frankreich sagt Non

France gave a stinging 'non' to the draft EU constitution

The French and Dutch no votes could amount to an opportunity for Blair and his vision of free-market economic vision for Europe, in the absence of a strong European leadershiop, some experts said. "The triumph of perfidious Albion," the weekly Economist headlined.

Not so fast, other experts said. Because the European Council from June 16-17 will also be about the 2007-2013 budget, where Britain is under mounting pressure to give up its cherished 20-year-old rebate.

Some leaders are dreaming of an agreement to make the crisis blow over. And on this file, Blair, who is for now rejecting any compromise, is alone against everyone else.

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