Political conflict over the fate of the European Union’s constitution erupted again on Wednesday, as the issue divided the bloc and raised the prospect of a new clash between Britain and France.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said she would use her country’s presidency of the EU to push for the enactment of a rewritten constitution by 2009, warning of an “historic failure” if the stalemate continued.
She told the European parliament there could be no future expansion of the 27-member club until a new treaty had been agreed to update its ageing institutions and voting rules.
But her relaunch of Europe’s constitutional row – on hold since the treaty was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005 – led to a drawing up of battlelines in national capitals.
Britain made it clear that any new treaty would have to be so modest that Gordon Brown – expected to be prime minister by the summer – could ratify it through a parliamentary vote, avoiding a referendum he would probably lose.
A senior British official said referenda were “not in Europe’s interest”, and suggested London would not be unhappy if the constitutional impasse continued.
“Europe is not broken,” the official said. “We are taking decisions. You can push through something major like climate change and energy reform with the existing structure.”
Meanwhile, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist French presidential candidate, announced she would put a new treaty to a referendum, a move greeted with dismay in London.
“I want the French people to be consulted once again in a referendum in 2009,” Ms Royal said on a visit to Luxembourg.
She is likely to use the issue to paint her rival Nicolas Sarkozy as someone prepared to deny French voters their democratic voice: Mr Sarkozy argues that a mini-treaty could be approved without running the gauntlet of a second referendum.
But a Royal victory could complicate Ms Merkel’s attempts to salvage the constitution. The Socialist candidate wants any new treaty to deliver a more “social Europe”, focussing more on workers’ rights and less on economic liberalisation.
If Ms Royal insists on a less “Anglo-Saxon” treaty it could herald a bruising clash with Mr Brown and other economic liberals – particularly in central Europe. It could also heighten pressure on Britain and others to hold their own referendums.
Meanwhile, the 18 countries which have ratified the constitution will meet in Madrid next week to maintain pressure on Britain, France and other non-ratifiers such as the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Poland, to stick to the original text.
The constitution would create a new EU president and foreign minister, reduce the size of the European Commission, reform the voting rules and remove national vetos in some areas of justice and home affairs.
It also includes a charter of fundamental rights and officially gives the EU formal trappings of statehood, such as a flag, anthem, motto and “national” day.