LONDON, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- In the last week, the divisions between the nations of Europe seem to have grown wider and wider. A few days ago, eight European countries, led by Spain and Britain, signed an open letter of support for President George W. Bush. In a calculated snub, France and Germany were not even told about this letter, let alone asked to sign it. And on Monday, perhaps in an act of diplomatic revenge, France and Germany, together with Belgium, refused Turkey's request for help in preparing its defenses before a war with Iraq, thereby sending NATO into one of the worst crises in its 54-year history.
That is what is happening on the surface. How interesting to see that at exactly the same time as divisions seem to be widening, plans for a unified Europe have gathered momentum. For last week, the Convention on the Future of Europe -- an official European Union group of politicians loosely modeled on the 1787 Philadelphia convention that produced the United States Constitution -- published its draft proposals on a European Constitution. Almost unnoticed until now, these proposals would fundamentally change the political face of Europe -- achieving the ambition of the EU's founding fathers for full political and economic union.
For the first time, the EU with its 25 member nations will become an international legal entity in its own right, with a formal Constitution that entrenches far-reaching federal powers -- placing it and its institutions in a position of ultimate supremacy over the former sovereign states. Indeed many of those involved see the process as creating a "United States" of Europe.
With the support of most of the European governments already guaranteed, the draft proposals are close to being a fait accompli. Yet much of the European public is still unaware of what is at stake, and the arguments for and against such a radical step have yet to be debated.
The implications for the United States could be significant. While Britain has a trans-Atlantic perspective that embraces America as its closest ally, much of the Continent -- led by France and Germany -- is driven by the desire to create a rival power bloc that can thumb its nose at Anglo-American dominance. And if the proposed Constitution is ratified, a single European foreign minister will speak for Europe. Britain's separate voice will be muffled by a proposed clause that enjoins any member state to refrain from action that undermines the common position. America will have lost its most reliable ally.
Does Britain have any choice in all this? Some people here argue that unless we go along with the inevitable, Britain will be cast out in the wilderness, with our economic prosperity put at risk. But this policy of surrender ignores the few strong negotiating cards that Britain still enjoys. Most important of all, any change to the Founding Treaties of the EU has to be unanimous. Britain can simply say "no." The status quo would be maintained. If, then, a group of countries wanted to press ahead with political union, they would have to do so by setting up new legal structures outside the current EU framework.
However, this could miss a great opportunity. For Britain, if it had the courage -- and perhaps the backing of a powerful friend such as the United States -- could now try to negotiate a fundamental change in Britain's relationship with Europe.
Given the bargaining power of its veto, Britain could seek a new form of associate membership of the EU, similar to that already enjoyed by Switzerland and Norway.
If Britain went down this route, it would still enjoy access to European markets. But it would not participate in the new state's constitutional structures, nor would it accept its superior legal authority over the British Parliament and courts. Britain would wish the other countries well, but retain its own independence. It might even find that several other EU members chose to come along, too.
So far as defense and security issues were concerned, Britain would retain its partnerships and alliances in Europe as now, on the basis of intergovernmental agreements. But it would not cede authority to any new EU body or "coordinating authority" that may be proposed in the new Constitution.
So Britain does have a choice. It can negotiate a position in Europe that both preserves its independence and protects its economic prosperity. It should not be afraid to use its veto if that is the only way to achieve that goal.
And given what is at stake, the British government should commit now that it will not sign up to a European Constitution unless it has won the support of the British people in a referendum.
(Lord Blackwell is chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies, and a former head of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit under John Major. His pamphlet "A Defining Moment" is published by the CPS Tuesday.)