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Blair Defends Proposed EU Constitution, Opposition Calls for Referendum - 2004-03-29

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has gone to parliament to defend the proposed European Union constitution from his political opponents, who say it is a threat to British sovereignty.

Prime Minister Blair told parliament he will make sure the constitutional treaty preserves Britain's right to set its own taxes, run its own criminal justice system, and maintain its foreign and defense policies.

"Provided we do so, this treaty is right for Europe, and right for Britain, because in today's world, particularly after the events of recent months, Europe needs to work more effectively to protect and enhance the lives of its people," he said.

The leader of the opposition Conservative Party, Michael Howard, said the constitution will give the European Union the trappings of statehood, and he said Mr. Blair should stop opposing a referendum on it.

"On this historic issue, he refuses the British people a say," he said. "So let me make it clear. Any proposal for a new constitution must be put to the British people. The prime minister says, trust him. We say, trust the people."

Mr. Blair argues that the treaty will not change Britain's relations with the European Union in any fundamental way, but he says it is needed to prevent, what he calls, "paralysis" when the union expands to 25 member states on May First.

EU leaders agreed last week to resume negotiations on the constitution, which will replace various treaties that now form the foundation of the union. Their goal is to complete the new accord by mid-June, though previous negotiations have proven difficult, and the process broke down last December.