French no vote may stop Britain holding referendum on constitution, Blair suggests

Prime Minister Tony Blair hinted Monday that Britain would not hold a referendum on the European constitution if the treaty is scuttled first by a French 'No' vote.

A clutch of opinion polls in France indicate the French will reject the treaty on May 29 _ a move many believe will derail the constitution and moves toward closer European integration.

"I have always said we will have a vote on the constitution. It does not matter what other countries do," Blair told a news conference Monday, repeating his government's long-held position.

But when a reporter asked what he would do if there were no constitution _ a clear reference to the possibility of the treaty being killed off by France _ Blair responded: "You cannot have a vote on nothing."

The British government faces a stiff battle to convince the largely euro-skeptic British public to back the constitution. Blair believes Britain should be at the heart of European decision-making and a "No" vote in this country would be a serious blow to his authority.

Political opponents suspect Blair would seize on a "No" vote in France or elsewhere as an excuse to avoid a divisive vote here.

On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it was unclear what would happen if the French rejected the treaty.

"Each country is under a separate commitment to put the constitution to a referendum or get it formally ratified by its parliament," he told ITV television. "Quite separately, if any one country votes 'No' it will go before the European Council, the summit, and I can't say what decision will be made."

Britain has declined to fix a date for the referendum, saying only that it would be held in early 2006.

If approved in all 25 EU nations, the constitution will create an EU foreign minister and provide new voting rules to accelerate decision-making. It will end national vetoes in new policy areas, including law-enforcement cooperation, education and economic policy, while preserving unanimity voting on foreign and defense policy, social security, taxation and culture.

The opposition Liberal Democrats said a French "No" vote would probably kill the process.

"If the French vote against then I think it is very unlikely that there'll be a referendum anywhere else, and, in particular, in the United Kingdom because the French vote against will bring the process to a halt and there will have to be reconsideration," said the party's foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell.

ED JOHNSON, Associated press Writer

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