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Britain Demurs On EU Constitution

Despite its major role in the European Union, Britain has often fought for special treatment and worked against the drive by France and Germany for closer political unity in Europe. Britain is the only country among the first 15 member states of the European Union not to adopt the euro and not to have signed the Schengen Agreement easing travel among EU member-states. And Britain's historic closeness with the United States also sets it apart from the rest of Europe. But, Britain has also changed vastly since it joined the EU in 1973. Today it faces more toward the continent, and less to the open sea, than at any time in its history. About 60 percent of British exports go to the rest of Europe. Britons visit the continent in greater numbers than ever before, and many are eager to learn French, German and other European languages.

Anatol Lieven, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington says support in Britain for the EU varies widely. "The Scotts and the Welsh on the whole are much more in favor of the European Union because they see themselves at that point as equal partners in the European Union alongside England. The English, on balance, are much less pro-EU, but the English too are divided, says Mr. Lieven. "If you look at the polls, a majority are against deeper European integration. But equally, a majority is in favor of staying within the European Union."

Mr. Lieven says there are ideological divisions too. British Conservatives tend to object to closer ties with the EU, while moderates and liberals generally support it. According to Charles Kupchan, Director of European Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the row over Iraq has created a new crop of Britons who don't believe the strategic interests of their country and the United States are inseparable.

"The reaction in Britain to the Bush administration, to the war in Iraq, to Tony Blair's support for the war, has raised deep questions whether Britain wants to remain so tightly hitched to the United States. But if one goes to Britain today, you definitely discern a great anxiety about American policy and about Britain's role as Europe's bridge to America. That is particularly true among younger Britons."

Still, adopting the EU constitution appears an uphill battle in Britain. Many Britons harbor a lingering mistrust of centralized decision-making in Brussels, the EU capital. Britain has never had a written constitution, let alone one drafted mostly by unelected foreigners. And it was little surprise to observers when Queen Elizabeth inquired about the EU's constitutional treaty implications for her role as supreme guardian of the British constitution. The Carnegie Endowment's Anatol Lieven says Britain is not alone in its doubts about a European Union dominated by continental powers."

"Most of Europe is not on the same page as the French and the Germans. It's not just the East Europeans that are very suspicious of Europe dominated by France and Germany. So are the Dutch, the Danes, the Portuguese, even the Italians and the Spanish. In its suspicion of a Europe dominated by France and Germany, Britain has very strong support elsewhere."

But British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a strong supporter of the European Union, argues that a failed referendum on the EU's constitution would make Britain isolated and weak in Europe. He insists Britain can better influence the bloc's policies and keep it closely allied with the United States if it remains a key player in Europe. Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations agrees. He adds there are many Europeans who don't want to part ways with the United States.

"Countries like Poland, Denmark and the Netherlands, they don't want to choose. They don't want to be told: 'You're either with the EU or you're with the United States.' It, therefore, is very important for these countries to be more engaged in shaping the EU's overall direction and vision."

Mr. Kupchan suggests European politicians will find themselves in a better place if they choose to maintain a strong transatlantic relationship rather than a course in opposition to the United States that undermines the very unity of Europe they are trying to achieve.

This story was broadcast on the VOA Focus program. To hear more Focus stories click here.