Wed, Oct 08, 2003 - Page 7 News List

EU constitution inflames divisions in UK's Tories

AFP , BLACKPOOL, ENGLAND

There's an air of conspiracy in the basement bar of the Ruskin Hotel in Blackpool, where 100 or so Tories have gathered to heap scorn on the EU and its latest big idea.

Overlooking them is a framed, autographed portrait of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Britain's Conservative prime minister throughout the 1980s, who is today the spiritual leader of the nation's legion of euroskeptics.

With an EU constitution in the pipeline, Thatcher would have agreed with much of what was being said at this hour-long critique of the EU, organized on the fringes of the Conservatives' annual conference by the Bruges Group, a euroskeptic think tank.

Europe is one of the issues that splits the Conservatives, Britain's main opposition party, which has failed thus far to exploit Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair's mid-term slump to rebuild its popular support.

So divisive is Europe, in fact, that Tory Chairman Theresa May didn't mention the word during her keynote speech at the annual Conservative party conference, which opened on Monday in Blackpool, northwest England, with the singing of "God Save the Queen." She'd prefer, like Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, for the party to concentrate on wooing British voters with hopeful talk of deep tax cuts and better public services.

But Europe is one topic that won't go away -- not with the 25 current and future EU member states now haggling over the fine points of the bloc's first-ever constitution in hopes of nailing down a consensus by December.

Euroskeptics, or "euro-realists" as some would prefer, see the constitution sweeping away 1,000 years of British national sovereignty, leading to a European superstate with orders coming down from "eurocrats" in Brussels.

They also reject the idea of an EU foreign minister who could run roughshod over Britain's more pro-US foreign policy, and fear the creation of a European military force that could rival NATO.

Blair denies that it's all as bad as that, but many Conservatives are insisting on a full-dress referendum in Britain on the EU constitution.

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