European convention: the great debate

By GRAHAM DINESPolitical EditorIT is the nightmare vision for all eurosceptics – a convention drawing up a new EU constitution that they fear will drown all member states in a sea of federalism.


Political Editor

IT is the nightmare vision for all eurosceptics – a convention drawing up a new EU constitution that they fear will drown all member states in a sea of federalism.

Yet while most of our European partners are ready to let their voters approve or reject the constitution in national referendums, Tony Blair's government has firmly rejected the idea.

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In patronising and confrontational language, ministers insist there is nothing to fear from the proposed document and that there is no reason whatsoever to put it before the British people.

As justification, they cite previous Tory governments which did not offer votes on the single market in 1986 or the Maastrict Treaty in 1992. This dismissive attitude fails to recognise that the convention is of far more fundamental significance for this country's constitutional future than Maastrict ever was – John Major's government negotiated opt-outs on Maastrict which watered down its impact on the UK, without which his government would almost certainly have fallen.

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On Monday, the Prime Minister met the convention's president Valery Giscard d'Estaing to warn him that Britain will not allow the constitution to override this country's powers over tax harmonisation and border control or to set up a European prosecutor.

But that's not enough for many of those who fear – the Government believe irrationally – that what started out as the Common Market is heading for a United States of Europe.

One national newspaper is organising a nationwide poll for people to vote `yes' or `no' for the constitution – a move condemned by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who has accused the sceptic media of peddling "lies and baloney."

He said the aims of the constitution were merely "an enlarged EU more efficient and open." Dismissing suggestions that a European tyranny was about to be imposed on the UK, Mr Straw said: "The British public deserves a higher level of debate than this."

But as with the single currency, the Government appears not to want to engage the public any type of debate.

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith – chief rebel when his own party leader John Major was trying to push the Maastrict Treaty through the Commons, said this week that referendums have become the norm wherever changes have been proposed to the way people are represented and governed. Plebiscites have taken place on constitutional changes in London, Scotland, Wales, and England's towns and cities where directly elected mayors have been proposed.

"There can be no doubt that the draft constitution proposes deep and dangerous changes to how the British people, and all other peoples of Europe, are governed," said Mr Duncan Smith.

Tony Blair has threatened to try to overturn more extreme federalist parts of the constitution at an inter-governmental conference next month. But he still will not put the issue to the electorate in the vote – presumably because he knows it will be defeated overwhelmingly.

The East Anglian Daily Times has given Euro MPs from the four parties representing the East of England in Brussels to have their say on the implications of the convention.

Now its your turn. Write to: the Letters Page, EADT, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, by fax to 01473 324871, or e-mail

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