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U.K.: Demands For British Referendum Growing As EU Nears Presentation Of New Constitution

  • Jan Jun

Yesterday's visit to London of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, head of the European Union's efforts to draft a constitution, has coincided with growing protests in Britain against the adoption of the constitution without a referendum. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government are firm in wanting the EU to amend the draft constitution in such a way as to negate the need for a referendum.

London, 20 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who is drawing up a constitution for the European Union, held talks in London last night. Under normal circumstances, as many British political observers pointed out, this would have been a quiet and amiable diplomatic event.

Not this time. Blair's government, reeling from a weekend controversy over a referendum on joining the European single currency, is now in a bind over its refusal to allow a referendum on the new EU constitution.

The row comes amid controversy over what have been described as "insensitive" remarks made by Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, Britain's chief negotiator at the constitutional convention.

Hain accused those who are calling for a referendum of "peddling" lies to mislead the people and said those who are demanding a referendum "might as well put away their placards and stop wasting their money because we are not going to do it."

Some British newspapers said Hain's remarks were "outrageous" and called him the "Minister of Arrogance." "The Times" commented that Blair will have to set "red lines over which Britain is not prepared to cross" in order to head off demands for a referendum.

It was up to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to defend the government during a speech in Brussels yesterday. "It is absurd to suggest -- as some in Britain and elsewhere do -- that the Europe of 25 [members] will be some kind of tyranny when this wider Europe has been built up on tyranny's defeat. And, in our judgment, the British and European public deserve a higher level of debate," he said. Straw said the British Parliament, not a referendum, is the best forum for debating the issue.

To the government's obvious displeasure, however, demands for a referendum are now coming from people of all political persuasions. Deputy Frank Field from Blair's own Labour Party said he plans to introduce a bill this week in Parliament demanding a referendum, because he says the "people of Britain should have a choice." His call is supported by a number of senior members of Parliament (MPs).

Britain's other representative at the Convention on the Future of Europe, Conservative MP David Heathcoat-Amory, shares Field's views. He told RFE/RL that Britain "simply must have a referendum."

"Peter Hain, the Europe minister, is pretending that this is only a minor tidying-up of the existing treaties," Heathcoat-Amory said. "That is completely untrue. This is an entirely new union we are creating here and a new constitution for Europe, which, of course, means a written constitution for the United Kingdom for the first time. So the scale of change is widely accepted on the continent, and it is only the British government that are pretending that this is some minor measure to amend the existing treaties."

Heathcoat-Amory pointed out that most other European countries will have a referendum, which puts additional pressure on the British government to give people a say because "the aim of the convention is to create a democratic Europe closer to her citizens." He explained why that may not happen, however.

"The new constitution will transfer more powers to the center, not just over foreign policy but also over criminal-justice policy and over a wide variety of domestic measures, such as social policy, the environment, transport, energy, and many other issues which are at the moment primarily decided by national parliaments. So this is a centralizing constitution, and I think it will widen the gap between the ordinary people of Europe and the new union. And I think that will create less democracy and is a backward step," Heathcoat-Amory said.

Last night's talks between Blair and Giscard d'Estaing were described by a Blair spokeswoman as a "useful opportunity to exchange views."

There was no communique issued, and Blair's spokeswoman insisted he made it clear he will not accept certain changes in the EU constitution. Blair favors an EU in which member-state governments hold the reins of power, not institutions in Brussels.

Today's editions of many British dailies point out that the government is now using the term "Europe of free independent nations" to underline its firm stand and that even Hain has said there is no prospect of a European "superstate."

With some 84 percent of Britons in favor of a plebiscite, calls for a referendum are not going to vanish, however, even if, as "The Times" daily put it, "ministers appear finally to have woken up to the increasing political and public furor."

Heathcoat-Amory also told RFE/RL that new EU members from Central and Eastern Europe should remain vigilant as to "what kind of union they are going to join." He said that during recent talks in Prague, he warned Czech politicians: "The Czech Republic will, in fact, not be in the present union. It will be joining very shortly the new union created by this new constitution. And I hope that the Czech people will be granted another referendum on whether they approve of these new changes. Otherwise, they will be having negotiated to join one union but, in fact, they will be living in another."

The EU convention is due to present its draft constitution to heads of EU governments on 20 June during a summit in Salonika, Greece.