Thursday, December 09, 2004

Referendum Bill may be postponed

Business managers of both Houses of Parliament are worried that they will not have time to push through the EU Constitution Referendum Bill before the next election, still most likely to be in May.

They are anxious that the Conservatives (and, even more importantly, members of the House of Lords) will produce what they wryly call “a Maastricht scenario” that will drag out and take time away from other rather controversial measures such as the introduction of internal passports a.k.a. ID cards or the setting up of a Serious Organized Crime Police Force (dubbed the British FBI by those witty wags in the newspapers).

What the business managers or the usual channels, as they are sometimes described, do not mention is another fear, but one can almost hear it in their voices. The Maastricht debates in both Houses (and let us remember that with all his faults John Major did not guillotine what was indisputably a constitutional Bill) became a wasting disease. As the endless debates dragged on, the Conservative government bled slowly to death. This is not likely to happen to a government with a majority of the size this one has, but a wasting disease is not wanted just before a general election.

The likelihood is, therefore, that the Referendum Bill will be introduced immediately after the election, though it may well be published in January when we are also going to find out what the question will be and whether it will ask about the treaty or the constitution itself.

Lucy Powell of Britain in Europe is still insisting that there will be no messing about with the question. It will be simple and straightforward, just as the Prime Minister’s office is promising us. The Vote – No campaign, capable of making a statement since this is really rather straightforward, is fussing over the difference between “a treaty to establish a European Constitution” or “European Constitution” tout court. Both would be technically correct.

It remains unclear when the actual Bill to amend the European Communities Act, that is to add the new treaty to British legislation (subject, for once, to a referendum vote) will be debated. Will that, too, be left till after the election? That could cause problems, as there will not be a great deal of time between that and the British Presidency of the EU. Surely, Tony Blair will not want a “Maastricht scenario” while he is wining and dining his colleagues from the other member states.

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