IS it a white flag rather than a White Paper (Michael Ancram's nice phrase in the House of Commons yesterday) or a reasoned response from the government to the draft Constitution of the European Union? The White Paper sets out the government's generally favourable attitude to the draft Constitution but also makes clear those proposals with which it cannot agree - the “red line” issues. When Valery Giscard D'Estaing completed the draft Constitution in June after more than a year's work he urged that governments should not start unpicking the bits of it they didn't like because if they did so the whole package would begin to come apart. One can understand his anxiety - he and more than one hundred national delegates had worked for over a year to put the package together and in doing so had made compromises here, there and everywhere to produce a result on which all fifteen of the present EU members could agree. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and current president of the European Union, now has the task of getting that final agreement at inter-governmental talks which begin in Rome on October 4 and will continue intensively for the rest of the year. It was the Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957 by the then six members of the European Economic Community, which gave birth to what has become today's European Union. It is understandable, therefore, that Sr Berlusconi wants to complete work on the new EU Constitution during Italy's presidency so that this important step forward will become a second Treaty of Rome. His chances of achieving this are not good, however; from the beginning of October he has just three working months left - even assuming that everyone will be willing to work through the Christmas period until 31 December and even on that night to stop the clock just before midnight in traditional EU negotiating fashion. While giving the draft Constitution a general welcome Britain has identified “reservations” about some of its provisions. In the House of Commons yesterday the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke of the government's determination to keep Britain's existing right of veto in key areas such as tax, defence and criminal law. Peter Hain, now Leader of the Commons, who handled most of the earlier negotiations on the draft, has also mentioned the need for greater clarity on cross-border taxes including social security and on the role of the proposed EU foreign affairs representative. These are not minor matters and, since it is to be expected that other members of the EU will have their own reservations about some of the draft's provisions, it will be surprising if the Constitution is finalised by the end of the year. In introducing the White Paper yesterday Mr Straw made the valid point that reform of the structure and procedures of the EU are necessary to prevent the danger of what he called “bureaucratic gridlock” when ten new members join next year. In answer to Conservative accusations that the Constitution will be a “step change along the route to political union” he said that it “does not change the fundamental relationship between the EU and its member states”. The question that remains open is whether changes made to the draft in the coming months to satisfy other member states will leave Mr Straw's assurance untouched or buttress Conservative anxieties.


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