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Europe

Tories Call Constitution "Blueprint for Tyranny"

As the body drafting Europe's first constitution prepares to close with its work completed, controversy over the draft text is heating up in London, where conservatives say Tony Blair is giving Brussels too much power.

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British Prime Minister Tony Blair is making a difficult case at home for the EU constitution.

Calling it everything from "blueprint for tyranny" to a recipe for a "superstate," conservative politicians and tabloid newspapers in Britain do not like what they see in the draft European constitution that's being finalized in Brussels. A coalition of euroskeptics in Britain wants the constitution to be put up for a referendum because they say it will centralize power in Brussels and threaten the United Kingdom's sovereignty.

The latest calls for a referendum come on the heels of an admission made earlier this week by chief constitution draftsman and former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing that he replaced the word "federalism" in the constitution text with the French word "communautaire" to make the document more politically palatable for the federalism-loathing English. But in an interview with the Wall Street Journal Europe, he admitted the two words have exactly the same meaning.

Now the conservatives are accusing Giscard D'Estaing and the Blair government of trying to pull the wool over the eyes of its citizens. If the government approves the constitution, they argue, Britain will be transferring more power to Brussels than most Brits are comfortable with.

A Brussels power grab?

"We are seeing the creation of a political union, it's a step change away from the partnership of nations, it's gonna have its own president, its own foreign secretary, its own constitution including fundamental rights, it's gonna have control over many areas of our domestic policy," said Michael Ancram, foreign policy spokesman for the Conservative Party's parliamentary group in the House of Commons. "This is a real move away from our ability to determine our future and that's why it is so important that the people of this country are allowed to decide."

Ancram has called the draft constitution "dangerous and in-ward looking" and he and other opponents of it are calling for a referendum, a move Blair has so far opposed.

"If at the very moment when we have this fantastic opportunity we will then go and paralyze the EU by effectively saying: we will not vote 'no' to the Intergovernmental Conference – it will be disastrous for Britain and for British influence," Blair recently told a meeting of senior members of the British parliament. "And I happen to think that it is in Britain's interest to be a key player, right at the heart of Europe. And I believe that because it's in the British nation interest."

"The proper time to have a referendum whether locally or nationally is when the basic constitutional method of governance is being changed and that is not the case with the outcome of the convention." Blair recently described the draft as a "pretty good outcome" for Britain, with the convention agreeing to preserve veto power on foreign policy and taxation issues.

An uncertain union

But Blair still has his work cut out for him in a country that has long looked to Brussels with suspicion.

At the beginning of June, Blair indefinitely postponed a planned referendum on the euro after polls showed the vast majority of Brits were against adopting the common currency. Now, Blair could face the same prospects with his draft European constitution. Nonetheless, Blair still believes there needs to be a national debate among the British to define what their relationship to Europe should be.

For that reason, a number of EU supporters in the United Kingdom are also calling for a referendum on the constitution. They feel a vote would clarify the issue and, ultimately, renew the commitment Britain made to the EU when it joined in 1973. But that commitment has become fragile with increasing European integration and, paradoxically, the economic upswing in Britain that has been partially fueled by its membership in the EU. The recent decision by France and Germany, who form the core of EU power, not to support Washington's war against Iraq has also pushed London closer to the United States, with which it has strong cultural and political ties.

A recent study by the public opinion institute MORI found that close to one third of Brits would like to see their country give up its EU membership. Still, the most pressing political concerns for Brits are health and education – and neither of those policy areas are controlled by Brussels. A small majority believe the country should remain part of the economic and political union.

"I think the big message we have had is a sort of grudging acceptance that it is part of the status quo," said Simon Atkinson, a researcher at MORI. "We are not particularly interested in Europe as an issue. When we ask in opinion polls whether we should stay in or get out, small majorities say we should stay in."

D'Estaing: ratification likely

For his part, Giscard D'Estaing is optimistic that Britons will eventually support Blair's pro-European policies and not only ratify the constitution, but also adopt the euro in the future.

"Many Britons are still reluctant because they have a different past," Giscard D'Estaing told the British newspaper The Guardian in an interview published in its Thursday edition. "But basically I think the trend is towards Europe – the trend that is expressed by Mr. Blair. There will be two choices for Britain: the constitution and for the euro. I expect both of them to be positive. As long as the choice is not made it will be difficult to have a full engagement."

On Thursday, Giscard D'Estaing closed the 17-month European Convention, having completed his work in drafting a constitution that will chart the future course of the EU as it adds 10 new countries next year.

The final text of the constitution won't be delivered until after an intergovernmental conference convenes in October with officials from each of the current 15 EU member states and the 10 accession countries. Afterwards, it must be ratified by each country. That ratification process is stipulated by national laws – some countries, like England, allow parliament to ratify treaties; and others, like Ireland, require a national referendum.

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