Byline: JOE MURPHY
THE British referendum on the EU constitution was effectively abandoned today, sparking fury in France and Germany.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw read the last rites to the ill-fated treaty by halting the passage of legislation to allow a national vote.
At the same time, British diplomats were expressing increasing exasperation at the behaviour of President Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany, who met at the weekend to attempt to stitch up an agenda for Europe's future.
British officials were particularly infuriated that the pair tried to link the debate to Britain's refusal to give up its [pounds sterling]3 billion rebate, an issue calculated to create a headache for Tony Blair at crucial talks next week.
One diplomat said: "It is just a classic case of them trying to distract attention from the French referendum defeat by picking up an issue where they know 24 countries get hot under the collar with Britain."
The French and German leaders also said every EU country should go ahead with ratifying the doomed constitution, meaning that Britain should hold a referendum that all sides know Mr Blair would probably lose.
While the Foreign Secretary was stopping short of declaring the constitution dead, the shelving of the referendum was calculated to embolden other countries which want to move on.
In a Commons statement this afternoon, Mr Straw will say a pause is needed for leaders to make up their mind. He will say the onus is now on France and the Netherlands to say whether they think they can reverse the no votes that derailed the constitution in the first place.
GORDON BROWN today made a final plea for the United States to back his plans for Africa, calling for a "new global economic alliance" to help the world's poor. Tony Blair was today heading to Washington for talks with President Bush. He and the Chancellor are increasingly confident they can persuade Mr Bush to back their G8 summit agenda for Africa. Mr Brown meets EU finance ministers tomorrow and their G8 counterparts on Friday.
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So does this mean constitution is well and truly dead?
Q. Why is Jack Straw shelving our referendum?
A. To send a signal that the Government thinks the EU constitution is dead, without actually saying so. In the diplomatic blame game, no country wants to be seen to kill off the treaty.
Q. So is it dead or not?
A. As Monty Python would say, it is pushing up the daisies. Some of Europe's leaders are keeping up the pretence while they try to broker deals on the EU's future - a bit like when the Soviets delayed announcing the death of a leader until rivals had finished fighting over who should take his place.
Q. Is that what France and Germany are doing?
A. Gerhard Schroder and Jacques Chirac met at the weekend to try to set the agenda for the 16 June EU summit, at which all 25 heads of state will decide the way forward. The pair want to return to the days when the Common Market founding members called the shots.
Q. Do Germany and France want to save the constitution?
A. They'd love to - but both know it is impossible. The reason they are urging the UK to go ahead with its referendum is purely a game. …