FOLLOWING the negative outcome of French and Dutch referendums on the EU constitution, the British government said it would put on hold its planned referendum until the long-term picture was clearer. However, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, “It remains our view that the constitution represents a sensible new set of rules for the enlarged EU” and Prime Minister Blair added, “It's a perfectly sensible way forward”. These comments increased suspicion among eurosceptics that some of the constitution's provisions would be “cherry-picked” and implemented regardless of public opinion. Tensions rose between Britain and France over EU budget negotiations. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown said that Britain would if necessary use its veto to retain the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984; President Chirac urged Mr Blair to show a spirit of solidarity by surrendering the rebate; Mr Blair said that Britain contributed much more to EU funds than France; Downing Street later claimed that Britain paid more than twice as much as France to EU funds. Prospects for the coming EU summit in Brussels seemed gloomy. Mr Straw, visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories, got caught up in a dispute over recognition of the Palestinian terrorist organisation Hamas whose political wing has been winning seats in local elections. Although it became known that a British diplomat had held meetings with Hamas representatives, Mr Straw said that Britain would have no dealings with Hamas until it renounced violence. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, postponed parliamentary elections on the grounds that preparations were not complete; Hamas immediately claimed the delay was because he feared it would win many parliamentary seats. A national system of road-pricing to reduce congestion was proposed by Britain's Transport Minister, Mr Alistair Darling; charges would vary from 2p a mile on country roads to 1.30 Pounds a mile on main highways. Rainfall in Britain from November to May, an average of 16.2 inches, had been the lowest since 1976-76; a hosepipe ban was imposed in north Sussex for the first time since 1996.
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