Saturday, September 01, 2007

Behind the curve

Usually ahead of the game on EU issues, the Financial Times is trailing behind the curve, having just woken up with a headline, "Brown under fire over EU vote".

But, as well as noting that Keith Vaz has joined the fray, the paper also reports that former Labour minister Graham Stringer has called for an EU referendum. He believes that Labour made a commitment to holding a referendum in its manifesto for the 2005 general election, declaring that, "The Labour party manifesto is actually very clear".

Stringer adds, "We made a commitment at the election to hold a referendum. I think it is quite simple and straightforward we should hold that referendum on the issue that is before the government – that is a treaty on a new European constitution."

It has taken The Guardian to put the dampers on the Vaz call for a referendum, which he is proposing should take place next election day. It emerges that his idea is to force “anti-Europeans” to "put up or shut up". His referendum would simply ask voters: "Do you support Britain's continuing membership of the EU as set out under the terms of the Reform Treaty?"

Nevertheless, the government, according to The Independent has rejected the idea, the current Europe minister holding the line that, "Parliament is the right place for ratification – just as it was for the Single European Act under Baroness Thatcher, the Maastricht treaty under Sir John Major, and the Nice and Amsterdam treaties under Tony Blair."

We are also told that some Labour figures believe that an early election would help to quell the demands for a referendum. Apparently, they are saying that, if Labour won a fourth term on a manifesto saying that a referendum was not needed, it could claim a mandate for the treaty to be decided by Parliament.

In come the "Brown allies" to insist they can win the argument in Parliament that the treaty is not the same as the EU constitution. They – whoever "they" might be - acknowledge the need to fight back against the pro-referendum campaign, which has gained ground during the summer months. But they believe that combining a referendum and election would be a risky move that might boost the Tories' prospects of winning power by raising the profile of Europe in the campaign.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats continue to prevaricate, although former MEP and now MP, Christopher Huhne (another arch-Europhile) is leaving open the possibility of joining the drive for a referendum, arguing that “amendments by the 27 EU member states this autumn might end up breaching British sovereignty.”

From his boss, though, there is no movement. Menzies Campbell is still maintaining his stance that he wants to see the details of the final treaty first. But, he says, "My instinct so far is that a referendum is not required."

It is not only The Financial Times, it seems, that is behind the curve.

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