Britain shelves plans for referendum on EU constitution

Prime Minister Tony Blair's office confirmed Monday that Britain has put on ice its plans for a referendum on the European Union constitution, following its rejection in France and the Netherlands.

Blair's official spokesman said there was no point in proceeding with a vote, until the results of the French and Dutch referendums could be discussed at the European Council summit later this month.

"It is not sensible to proceed until we have greater certainty about where we are going," he told reporters, on customary condition of anonymity. "Let's have a pause, let's reflect."

The decision to shelve the vote removes a major complication for Blair, who faced an uphill battle to convince a largely euro-skeptic British electorate to back the treaty.

According to an ICM survey for the BBC2's Newsnight program, 64 percent of Britons would have voted against the treaty - a result that would certainly have undermined Blair's authority and perhaps prompted him to resign. Just 20 percent of respondents said they would back the constitution, in the June 3-5 survey of 1,017 people across Britain.

Some analysts suggest the French and Dutch "no" votes also strengthen Blair's voice in the ongoing debate over the future shape of Europe.

He has long argued for economic reform of the bloc and wants Britain to be at the heart of European decision making. Although favoring closer foreign, fiscal and defense cooperation, he has resisted the federalist ambitions of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and, in particular Jacques Chirac, who views a strengthened EU as a counterbalance to the United States.

Simon Bulmer of Manchester University, an expert on Britain's relationship with the EU, said the Franco-German axis - the traditional powerhouse of closer European integration - had been weakened by the "no" votes and the upcoming election in Germany.

"There is a situation where these two states with their traditional central position on European integration have been weakened," said Bulmer, adding that enlargement of the bloc had already shifted the balance in Britain's favor.

Chirac and Schroeder have called on other member states to press ahead with ratification.

"Ten countries have voted for the constitutional process, two against _ and it is the right but also the duty of every country to be able to have its say," said Schroeder's spokesman, Bela Anda, ahead of the announcement by Blair's office.

Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld said his nation plans to forge ahead with its referendum despite Britain's decision.

"We should continue this journey, because the year that we have been in the European Union has proved to be profitable for Poland, for Poland's growth," he said.

Blair's spokesman denied shelving the vote would kill off the treaty.

"What we are doing is reflecting the fact that we are in uncertain times, and in uncertain times you should not just give a knee-jerk response," said the spokesman, who insisted a referendum could still be held if the constitution survived the crisis.

The French and Dutch "no" votes also pose problems for Blair, however. He takes on the six-month EU presidency on July 1 and will have to shepherd the 25 nation bloc through a period of uncertainty - an unwelcome distraction for a leader who would prefer to champion his G8 goals of tackling climate change and poverty in Africa.

According to Dana Allin of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the "no" votes are also a blow to Blair's push for economic reform of the EU.

Blair sees free-market flexibility and deregulation as crucial in the face of intense competition from America and rising economic powers like China and India.

He has argued that the treaty would have moved Europe away from the French-style social and worker protections which he believes have hampered economic prospects.

Allin said French and Dutch voters had clearly reacted against "the British vision of Europe."

Blair spokesman called for a "proper, sensible rational debate about globalization and how Europe meets that challenge" in the wake of the "no" votes.

ED JOHNSON, Associated Press Writer

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