Europe sets out sweeping new powers
By Ambrose Evans Pritchard in Brussels and George Jones
Sweeping plans for a new European constitution, with an elected president and overriding powers to legislate across the whole range of national life, reignited the fierce debate over Britain's future in Europe last night.
The draft of the constitution, which was presented in Brussels yesterday, includes plans for a common foreign policy, a legally binding charter of fundamental rights, control over economic and employment policies and the explicit primacy of EU law over member states for the first time.
Although references to a "federal" Europe were dropped at Tony Blair's request, the Conservatives said the proposals would result in a loss of control over many areas of national interest.
David Heathcoat-Amory, the Tory MP on the European Convention, which is drafting the constitution, said it amounted to "a European state with a European government".
Peter Hain, the Cabinet minister on the convention, said that talk of a Brussels-run federal superstate was a "myth". Britain had influenced the plans considerably and the EU would continue to be a "partnership of sovereign member states with governments such as Britain's still in charge".
He said there were important battles still to fight to protect Britain's interests, including opposing cross-border social security measures and ensuring that the proposed foreign minister was firmly under the control of governments and not the EU Commission.
But his assurances failed to stem growing demands for a referendum on the proposals.
Senior Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat figures made clear that they would join forces to press for one if the constitution went through in its present form.
A year-long battle lies ahead, with Britain expected to try to water down the proposals before they become part of a formal treaty. But there is a widespread view in Brussels that London will find it hard to attract enough allies to secure major concessions.
Eurosceptics said the draft represented a big shift away from a partnership of nation states to the EU becoming a fully-fledged superstate when it expands to 25 countries, stretching from Ireland to the borders of Russia.
The EU envisaged by the 105-strong convention would have a full-time president elected by EU leaders to give strategic direction. He or she would be a serving or former prime minister.
A foreign minister would be elected, also by EU leaders, to conduct a common policy. EU defence and security policy initiatives would also come under his remit.
EU leaders will give their first assessment of the partial text at a summit in Greece next month. The final version will need the unanimous agreement of member states, allowing individual governments to veto any provision they find unacceptable.
Mr Hain, the Welsh Secretary, accused the Tories and some newspapers of trying to frighten the public by misrepresenting the constitution as a threat to British sovereignty.
He told BBC Radio that the deletion of the word "federal" was a clear sign that the rest of Europe shared Britain's view that the EU would remain a union of sovereign states.
"There will be no harmonisation of tax," he said. "Governments will remain in charge of foreign and security policy, with countries such as Britain having a veto."
Mr Hain said the Government would negotiate a "good deal" on protecting Britain's interests and that there was no case for a referendum.
Asked about The Telegraph's call for an appeal to raise £20 million for a referendum on the final text next year, he said: "It is a free country, but Parliament remains the sovereign source of decision-making."
Michael Ancram, the Tory foreign affairs spokesman, demanded a referendum. He said the draft was "a step-change away from a partnership of nations . . . towards a political union with its own president, its own foreign secretary, its own constitution, including enforceable rights, and control over many areas of hitherto domestic policy".
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2003. Terms & Conditions of reading.