British passports face yet another European makeover after the Government agreed with proposals from Brussels to stamp them with passages from the EU treaty.
Under contentious plans for a huge expansion of the EU's involvement in representing member states and their people abroad, it has emerged the European Commission wants Article 20 of the treaty to feature in each and every passport to remind people of their rights as "EU citizens".
Even staunchly pro-European countries such as Ireland have made it clear that they are opposed to the proposal.
But almost two decades since the UK's hard-back "Old Blue" passport was ditched for the EU floppy burgundy version, the Government has suggested the passage of text could be included when new biometric passports are introduced from 2010.
It is not certain where in the passport the statement would go and whether it would supplant the existing message from "Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State" asking for the passport-bearer to be allowed to travel freely and be granted any necessary assistance.
Article 20 states that outside the EU a member state is obliged to look after the citizens of other EU countries on the same basis as its own nationals.
This means that where an "EU citizen" does not have a consulate of his own nationality to look after him he can expect assistance from the mission of any other EU state he chooses.
In its official response to the idea, the Government said: "We agree that printing Article 20 in future designs of passports may prove to be an effective means of further disseminating this information to EU citizens. The UK would consider printing Article 20 in the next generation of biometric passports if it is found to be cost-effective."
The Commission is drafting the EU "recommendation", a legal instrument which "encourages" member states to do something, which will formally call for the measure.
Passports are just the beginning of the plans, first raised in an exploratory Green Paper on "diplomatic and consular protection" and fleshed out this summer in a speech by Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini following a consultation of member states.
Eyebrows have been raised across Europe at Commission plans to set up EU consulates across the world – missions in the Caribbean, the Balkans, the Indian Ocean and West Africa are suggested in the first wave – and their offer to take over responsibility for day-to-day consular duties from individual member states.
And the Commission has even suggested member states may wish to site their consular staff in Commission delegation premises, with Brussels organising their training for them.
"To ensure effective training, especially for the staff of the 'common offices', the Commission could organise joint training activities for member state and Community institution officials on, for example, EU external border checks, repatriation of remains or the right to diplomatic and consular protection," the Commission said.
In spite of its general approval of the passport plan, the Government has, however, come down firmly against these other ideas.
In its official response, it told the Commission: "We are concerned by the suggestion that, in the longer term, the EU should provide consular assistance through Commission delegations.
"The Commission has no experience in providing consular assistance and we do not believe that EU nationals would receive better consular assistance from the Commission than can be achieved by co-operation among the member states.
"Additionally, it is not clear to the UK that there is a legal basis for the Commission to exercise consular functions."
And it voiced fears that a campaign to make more people aware of Article 20 would lead to the UK, with more consulates than most member states, bearing the brunt of a new era of consular co-operation.
"Those member states with large consular networks, offering higher levels of consular assistance or with a higher-profile presence in third states risk a disproportionate burden from unrepresented member states' nationals," the Government said.
A European Commission spokesman said the Green Paper was in part a reaction to the plight of thousands of "EU citizens" following the
2004 Tsunami catastrophe in South East Asia, the 2005 terrorist attack in Bali and the civil war in Lebanon last year, all of which "showed the shortcomings under the current situation".
He added: "Article 20 has remained underdeveloped in comparison with the other citizen rights enshrined in the treaty and the time had come to take action."
But Eurosceptic EU analyst Lee Rotherham said: "The Commission knows that the passport is one of the symbols of national identity, so this is a key and obvious attempt to bolster further the false notion of a single overarching European identity.
"And as for their offer to train consular staff, bearing in mind the EU's reputation for fraud and inefficiency I wonder whether the courses will make them better or worse officials."
A Tory spokeswoman said the Commission proposals were clearly "related" to fresh plans for an EU foreign minister in the re-drafted EU constitution and would be "explored in more detail".
The Foreign Office declined an invitation to comment.
THE OFFENDING EU ARTICLE
Article 20 of the EU treaty reads as follows:
"Every citizen of the Union shall, in the territory of a third country in which the member state of which he is a national is not represented, be entitled to protection by the diplomatic or consular authorities of any member state, on the same conditions as the nationals of that state."