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PostPosted: Tue May 15, 2007 5:16 pm    Post subject: Britain to be offered opt-out on EU justice Reply with quote

Britain to be offered opt-out on EU justice
By George Parker in Brussels and James Blitz in London

Published: May 15 2007 22:02 | Last updated: May 15 2007 22:02

Britain is to be offered an “opt-out” from some of the most sensitive parts of a revamped European Union constitution, as Angela Merkel, German chancellor, steps up efforts to negotiate a deal on a treaty.

Ms Merkel’s allies have identified Britain and Poland as the biggest obstacles to an agreement, but her team remains confident it can end five years of constitutional wrangling at a Brussels summit next month.

To help win Britain over, Ms Merkel, who holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is said by colleagues to be willing to let London choose whether to take part in police and judicial co-operation on criminal issues when national vetoes in the area are abolished.

The move could help unlock an agreement on a streamlined treaty to replace the EU constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, allowing the bloc to play a more active role in the world.

But Poland remains strongly opposed to a proposed change in EU voting weights, while Britain has other concerns about a charter of fundamental rights – which businesses fear could give workers more rights to strike – and a change in the status of EU foreign policymaking.

Although Tony Blair, British prime minister, is relaxed over the extension of qualified majority voting in legal areas, his presumed successor, Gordon Brown, wants to avoid a referendum on a treaty at all costs and is therefore wary of any agreement that might necessitate one.

Mr Brown is nervous of giving ammunition to the Conservative opposition and eurosceptic British media, which could seize on any removal of the national veto as grounds for a referendum.

Although Mr Blair hopes to negotiate most of the EU treaty in Brussels on June 21-22 – days before leaving office – it will fall to his successor to finalise negotiations in the autumn and to sign and ratify the treaty.

National “opt-outs” irritate other European countries and have typified British reluctance to become fully involved in EU projects such as the euro and internal border control regime.

Examples of EU action could include the setting of minimum standards for detainees, including detention times and access to a lawyer or interpreter. Police co-operation could include allowing officers in “hot pursuit” to cross national borders.

Hans-Gert Pöttering, president of the European parliament and a confidant of Ms Merkel, told Handelsblatt that “we can think about” time-limited opt-outs if it helped secure a deal.

German presidency officials said on Tuesday night that no offers had been made, and Mr Blair’s aides said the prime minister had not decided whether he would even want the opt-out.

They point out the UK has participated in closer co-operation in the justice field even when it could have exercised past opt-outs; Mr Blair ended the British exclusion from EU social policies soon after taking office.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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Britain to be offered opt-out on EU justice

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