Put Constitution to the vote

Tony Blair is facing growing demands to call a referendum on the proposed European constitution. In his second article, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines, who attended a seminar in Brussels last week for journalists across the EU, looks at the prospectsEUROPE has no Plan B.

Tony Blair is facing growing demands to call a referendum on the proposed European constitution. In his second article, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines, who attended a seminar in Brussels last week for journalists across the EU, looks at the prospects

EUROPE has no Plan B. If the European Constitution is not ratified all 25 states of the EU, there is no fall back position.

There can't be. The document cannot be forced on a country that does not want it, and it must apply to apply EU nations.

Unlike the Maastrict Treaty, member states cannot negotiate an opt out. All for one or none at all.

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A Europe-wide referendum has been ruled out because as the EU is not a nation state but an inter-governmental organisation, there can be no such thing as majority public opinion.

So one nation voting `no' when the document is presented to national parliaments or the people via a national referendum will effectively wreck it.

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As I discovered in a seminar organised in Brussels last week by the Maastrict-based European Journalism Centre, Eurocrats and politicians across the continent are desperately hoping there will be no re-run of the embarrassment over the Treaty of Nice, when the Irish voted `no' in a referendum.

That put the whole Treaty on hold until the people of Ireland were given an opportunity to examine the error of their ways. They relented to enormous pressure from the rest of the EU and approved the document. .

If the constitution is rejected by one or more nations, then the EU will be plunged into crisis. Should some countries by 2006 still not approved the text - in Eurospeak if "one or more member states have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification" - the council of ministers will have to decide what to do.

Up to nine countries are expected to order a referendum on the draft "constitutional treaty" which has been drawn up by former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

The first session of the convention was held on February 28 2002 and completed its work 15 months later. The outcome horrified Eurosceptics not just in Britain but across the continent.

Although then UK Minister for Europe Peter Hain called it a "mere tidying up exercise," the clarification of the EU's powers and the establishment of a permanent President and foreign minister have reinforced the beliefs of those who believe the ultimate aim is a European super state.

It will be submitted to the European Council - heads of governments - in Thessolonika on June 20, a week after the European elections, and if approved in principle, will be send to member states for ratification.

In Ireland and Denmark, a plebiscite on major constitutional changes is mandatory. Austria, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia are also expected to hold nationwide votes, and it's even money on France ordering a referendum.

For other nations, including the UK, parliamentary ratification is likely to suffice. But Eurosceptics in Britain are hopeful that Tony Blair may decide - in the light of nationwide opposition - to call a referendum.

In the past seven years, referendums have been held on devolution in London, Scotland, and Wales, and on whether to have elected mayors in a number of cities.

So why not one on a written constitution for Europe? Labour claims it's not necessary because the document is a re-ordering of the existing Treaties of Rome, Maastrict and Nice, the Single Market, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

But even the most ardent pro-European surely recognises that the draft constitution confers on the European Union a whole raft of new powers that override national parliaments. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is said to be urging a referendum.

The Conservatives oppose the constitution and want a nationwide vote. The Liberal Democrats support the document but want a referendum.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy says any measure involving the significant transfer of powers away from Westminster - and this coming from a pro-European neatly undermines the Government's case - "must be approved by the British people."

One of Tony Blair's own backbenchers Ian Davidson is leading a group called "Labour against a superstate" and says "the constitution would hand more powers and influence to Brussels."

Mr Davidson says the EU must deal with its corruption and financial problems as well as showing it can adequately use the powers it already has before being given more power under a constitution. He insisted the group was not anti-Europe.

"We support Britain's continued membership of the EU and we want to work with our fellow Europeans. None of us is looking for British withdrawal."

Labour MP Lynne Jones, a supporter of Vote 2004, the cross-party group calling for a plebiscite, said, "I hope that the government is planning to call a referendum.

"Tony Blair shouldn't be scared off by those who say the result is a foregone conclusion - the debate has only just begun. The Government should have the courage of its convictions and give voters a say."

But if the Prime Minister is tempted to order a vote, he may call the collective bluff of Eurosceptics by tying the issue into a binding vote on whether the UK should remain a member of the EU.

In other words - voting to stay in the EU will automatically mean approval of the Constitution.

That would throw the Conservatives into turmoil. Would they urge voters to support withdrawal from the EU because they oppose the constitution?

European Constitution: text in English

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