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How they see it in Washington

Posted by Helen Saturday, April 24, 2004

A Referendum on the EU

Editorial in The Washington Times 24.04.04

The decision by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution is important not only for Britain, but for Europe overall. Mr. Blair's move, which reverses his earlier opposition to a referendum, is resonating as much in Paris and Berlin as it is in London.

The constitution is slated to be approved in principle by EU leaders in June, but will first be debated by Britain's Parliament. Political analysts anticipate the referendum will be held after Britain's next general election, which is expected to take place before June 2005, and prior to Britain taking over the rotating EU presidency. Britain last held a national referendum in 1975, when the voters supported, by a 2-1 margin, staying within the European common market.

The EU Constitution would create a more monolithic Europe, consolidating the power of the EU's executive, legislative and judicial powers in Brussels. It also will give Germany and France greater voting weight within EU institutions. Given the size of German and French populations, that weight may not seem unreasonable in theory. In practice, though, these countries have given their European partners ample reason to be concerned about how they use power.

Mr. Blair's decision to hold a vote on the constitution enables the British electorate to become an arbiter of German and French actions, regardless of what is decided on a government-to-government level. The Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Poland are all likely to hold votes on a constitutional text. Polls indicate that support in Europe for a constitutional treaty is waning. In England, far more people are currently against a treaty than support one, though the ranks of the undecided are large.

Mr. Blair's defense of countries' sovereignty, together with his support of a referendum, has brought balance and street credibility to the constitutional process. Mr. Blair reiterated Tuesday that he will only support a constitutional treaty if it guarantees EU countries veto power over tax, social security, defense and foreign policies.

Germany and France, meanwhile, have eroded that credibility by deciding, a la carte, which EU guidelines apply to them. They have systematically breached the 1999 stability-pact economic guidelines, which Germany itself conceived. But the European Commission decided in November to suspend the pact, rather than penalize the two countries. In other instances, Germany and France have tried to disproportionately hold sway over other European matters, but have been successfully checked by other countries -- primarily Britain.

Mr. Blair's steady will on constitutional matters benefits the British people, and Europe. His about-face on the referendum is commendable.