Up and down the country people have been calculating when the referendum on the Constitution might take place and how its timing will fit in with a general election and the British Presidency of the European Union, due to start on July 1, 2005. The jig-saw pieces do not fit terribly well, and there have been murmurings that the Government may well decide to hold the referendum as late as possible in order to let some other country vote no first.
That will kill the treaty and Tony Blair will be able to relax. Not so, according to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. The UK, he tells us, has a solemn obligation to ratify the treaty and that will include holding a referendum, as promised.
This is not an accurate account of what will happen. In fact, the treaty is ratified by the Crown and what Parliament has to pass is an amendment to the European Communities Act. It is that piece of legislation that will go to the people, one assumes, in the form of a referendum. One of the most ferocious arguments will be the wording of the question.
In the meantime Mr Straw, supported by the Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, yet again poured scorn on the concept of the superstate. How they love that expression. It is not going to be a superstate, we are told endlessly and with a visible smirk of superiority. Well, who cares whether it is super or not? It will be a single state and that is what worries people.
Mr Straw, without the support of Signor Frattini this time, also poured scorn on the Conservative Party, its leader and all those who have supported its policy on the Constitution.
“He doesn’t want to discuss the issues. He doesn’t want to accept that he has been peddling myths and lies about this Constitution. He doesn’t want to accept that what happened was a defeat for the Conservatives’ strategy.
“We are delivering a flexible Europe and yet he is still opposed to this.”
Hmm. What is a flexible Europe, precisely? If Mr Straw is that anxious to have an open and reasonable discussion on the subject he might start by making it clear that he understands the difference between Europe and the European Union.
Furthermore, there has been a singular reluctance on the part of the Government, of which Mr Straw is an important member, to discuss the issues. We have had a great deal of vaporous generalization of “the flexible Europe” kind but little in the way of hard facts.
If Mr Straw does want to discuss the issues, he might start by telling us in how many areas has the Government surrendered the veto. He might then tell us precisely what has been gained in Britain’s interests or, at least, what has been retained.
He might then go on to explain why the European Public Prosecutor, whose existence was “completely unacceptable” to Britain not that long ago, is still securely positioned in the Constitution. And finally, at least for now, Mr Straw might like to explain as part of an open discussion of the issues, how handing over our economic policy to EU competence is in Britain’s interest and how it contributes to a “flexible Europe”.
That will do to be going on with.