Britain has signalled for the first time that it may veto the EU's constitution rather than lose its right to retain national control of defense, foreign and tax policies, London newspapers said yesterday, quoting an unnamed Foreign Office official.
Ahead of talks on the constitution between Britain and EU partners later this week, the official said the treaty was "highly desirable but not absolutely essential," according to the Financial Times.
"If there were no agreement it would complicate all sorts of things," the official was quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph, under the front page headline "Britain threatens veto on EU."
"But plainly life will go on under existing treaties," added the official, described by the Telegraph as a senior government source.
The government's tough stance came after British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, holding summit talks in London on Monday, said NATO would remain the cornerstone of European defense policy despite plans to strengthen EU ties in security and defense.
The EU's constitution is meant to overhaul the bloc's institutions to prepare the 15-nation grouping for enlargement next year to 25 countries.
Foreign ministers are meeting in Naples, Italy, on Friday through Sunday ahead of an EU summit next month when the bloc's Italian presidency wants to have the constitution wrapped up.
British Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Gordon Brown, speaking late Monday, reiterated his opposition to any move as part of the constitution to harmonize member states' taxes -- saying it would undermine Europe's economic competitiveness.
"With Europe's intergovernmental conference now entering its final stages, it is important that Europe responds ... without ambiguities that might, if unravelled, undermine even the best of intentions -- to the detriment of jobs and economic dynamism," he said.
Brown said the EU needed to develop a "strong transatlantic economic partnership" with the US and not succumb to the pressure to become an "inward looking" regional trade bloc.
Blair, meanwhile, has said he would never allow the constitution to cross British "red lines," including the right to retain national control of defense, foreign and tax policies.
But the opposition Conservatives contend the constitution will spell the end of 1,000 years of British sovereignty, create a European superstate, and shift too much power to unelected "eurocrats" in Brussels.