Friday, June 18, 2004

It's all over - it's done!

So said Tim Franks, the BBC's Brussels correspondent. "They're just having a celebratory drink".

That actually says it all. While we waited for official confirmation of the news, the political elites of Europe are slapping themselves on their respective backs and knocking back the booze - no doubt at the taxpayers' expense.

Eventually, Blair came out to make his official statement, predictably claiming that the constitution was a "success for Britain and a success for Europe".

Dennis Macshane - already on his way to the airport - then refused in a telephone interview - to say how many vetoes had been surrendered. Notably, he avoided calling the treaty a "constitution", describing it as the "new rule book" for a "new Europe". That is the way they're going to play it.

As for Franks, he is only right in one respect - only the negotiations are "all over".

The media and campaigners will have the next go. Then, in due course, the focus will move to the Houses of Parliament - probably in November - when a ratification Bill is flagged up in the Queen's speech.

What is expected is that the Bill will be tied in with, or incorporate a Referendum Bill, giving rise to no doubt impassioned debates. The outcome will be that Parliament will give it approval to the treaty being ratified, subject to a referendum having been concluded.

This will clear the way for the general election - expected in the spring or early summer of 2005 - when the full utility of the referendum will become clear.

As in 1997 with the promise of a euro election, Blair will use it to neutralise the EU issue, allowing him to concentrate on domestic issues.

How far that will succeed is debatable as, technically, the treaty will not have been ratified. It will be open to Howard to campaign on a platform of repealing the ratification Act (technically, an amendment to the European Communities Act 1972), so that the UK can refuse to ratify without resorting to a referendum.

By this means, Howard could effectively turn the general election into an EU referendum - exploiting his party's relative strength on the issue.

If, however, we're back with Labour after the general, the referendum campaign will start for real and, in the fullness of time, the date will be announced. The best bet is that we are looking at the autumn of 2005, although it could be later.

Either way, the battle has effectively started.

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