|French President Jacques Chirac, left chats with British Prime Minister Tony Blair|
British Prime Minister Tony Blair says the European Union needs what he describes as a pause for reflection before it decides what to do next about its troubled constitution. Mr. Blair also says it will be difficult to reach an agreement on the long-term EU budget at a summit later this week.
The EU summit on Thursday and Friday in Brussels will be dominated by the fate of the constitution that was recently rejected by French and Dutch voters in referendums.
Though 10 of the 25 EU member states have approved the charter, which would streamline decision-making in the bloc, the two "no" votes have cast doubt on the constitution's viability. The document must be approved by all EU members if it is to go into effect.
Mr. Blair, speaking in Paris after meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, says it is clear to him that the ratification process should be suspended to give Europe time to ponder the direction it wants to take.
"I believe it is possible that we could reach an agreement at the European Council (the summit)," he said. "I do not say it will happen, but I think it is possible, and indeed I think it would be sensible if we agreed in view of the 'no' votes in France and Holland that it was sensible collectively to come to the view that we should have this pause for reflection over a period of months so that we can give Europe the debate it needs and, then, the direction it needs on the key issues, the economy and globalization, issues to do with security and crime, the debate that Europe wants and needs and the direction that it wants and needs."
Luxembourg, which holds the EU rotating presidency, has suggested that the bloc extend the November 2006 deadline to ratify the charter to avoid what diplomats say is the risk of further "no" votes.
In Luxembourg, which is due to hold a referendum on July 10, polls show the "no" vote rising. The same Euro-skeptic effect has been seen in similar polls in Portugal, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Ireland, all of which are committed to hold referendums.
The other big issue EU leaders will have to grapple with at the summit is the budget for the period 2007 to 2013. Britain has refused to give up its treasured yearly rebate from EU coffers, despite of the demands of other members.
Mr. Blair is reluctant to budge on the rebate unless the EU also agrees to review farm spending, under which France, in particular, receives big subsidies. Mr. Chirac has ruled that out, leading Mr. Blair to say that it will be difficult to reach a budget deal in the days ahead.
"The meeting I have just had with President Chirac was immensely amicable, but, obviously, there is sharp disagreement," he said. "I think it is difficult to see these differences being bridged. But, of course, you know, we continue to talk to people, including the presidency, about it."
Germany, the bloc's biggest paymaster, has urged all EU countries to be prepared to compromise to reach a budget deal at the summit. Failure to do so could leave the European Union in financial turmoil and add to the political problems caused by the results of the French and Dutch referendums.