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Britons may vote on EU constitution
Updated: 2005-01-26 21:22

LONDON - The government Wednesday stepped up its efforts to sell the European Union's first constitution to a skeptical public, publishing legislation laying the groundwork for a referendum on whether Britain should sign up.

The European Union Bill, which must be approved by Parliament, will allow the British public to vote on whether to accept the 465-article treaty.

They will be asked a simple question: "Should the United Kingdom approve the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union?" The government has suggested the vote will be held in early 2006.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in an essay timed to coincide with the bill's publication, said the constitution was in Britain's best interests.

He said the government would try to "expose the myths and fabrications" of those who oppose the constitution.

If approved in all 25 EU nations, the constitution will create an EU foreign minister and provide new voting rules to accelerate decision-making. It will end national vetoes in new policy areas, including law enforcement cooperation, education and economic policy while preserving unanimity voting on foreign and defense policy, social security, taxation and culture.

Opponents, including the main opposition Conservative Party, claim the treaty strips Britain of its independence, and the government faces a struggle to win the referendum.

Michael Ancram, the Conservative Party's foreign affairs spokesman, criticized the government for delaying the referendum until after national elections expected in May. He accused Blair of running "scared of a debate on Europe he knows he cannot win."

Straw said that close cooperation with Europe boosted Britain's role on the world stage, and dismissed the arguments of opponents of the constitution.

"Britain will not have to relinquish control of its borders. We will not be forced to scrap our currency. We will not have give up our independent right to set our own foreign policy or to commit British troops," Straw wrote.

"If we reject this treaty, Britain will be isolated and weak in Europe," he added.

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