Thursday, January 27, 2005

All over the place

Predictably, the papers are full of the news on the EU referendum question, and generally the comment on the wording is favourable. By general consent, it seems to be agreed that Blair has gone for a neutral option which is acceptable to all the players. Not that he really had a choice.

Beyond that, sentiment and reaction to the announcement is varied and incoherent. Several papers also offer leaders, not least The Daily Telegraph, which heads its piece "Europe's point of no return".

It is this, perversely, that offers the most muddled analysis, arguing that the impending referendum ought not to be seen as a distraction from the real business of the country. Its result is as crucial as any election. "This is Europe's point of no return," it says, echoing its headline:

Our referendum will determine the future not only of Britain, but also of Europe. If we wish to preserve Europe as a free association of nation states, then the constitution belongs in the dustbin of history. If it achieves that end, this referendum could become a British declaration of independence.
This is dangerous nonsense. Should we not endorse the constitution, the status quo ante prevails, with all the existing treaties in force and the march of integration unchecked. Nor can it be argued that "Europe" is "a free association of nation states" – something which the foreign secretary is apt to claim.

The Independent, on the other hand is moaning that the government’s campaign is "tentative", saying that while it launched the campaign yesterday, it shelved its real campaign until after a general election.

It also draws attention to "a surprise provision in the Bill" that would allow ministers to call a "double referendum" on both the new EU treaty and joining the euro, "an option favoured by some pro-Europeans but which Downing Street has dismissed." This is one to watch.

The clause would also allow the referendum on the constitution to be held on the same day as local authority elections, although the Electoral Commission has warned that might confuse voters.

Yesterday, the Financial Times ran a piece by Jacek Rostowski, professor of economics at the Central European University, Budapest, and trustee of the Case Institute, Warsaw. He wrote about “The real dangers of Britain quitting the Union”, noting that the aim of the government campaign on the constitution is to present rejecting the constitution as more fraught with uncertainty than accepting it.

This was very much the line take by Peter Mandelson yesterday on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme, when he claimed the rejection of the treaty would be a leap into the unknown, "a situation from which we could not tell the consequences".

Yet that position is full of contradictions, says Rostowski for, if Blair really does wants Britain to decide about Europe once and for all, why did he commit himself to a referendum only when it became clear that Poland and Spain were not going to sink the constitution for him?

Why, he asks, is the referendum scheduled as late as possible, in the hope that others will scupper the project before Britain has to choose? Finally, if indeed it is the case that Britain could be forced to leave the EU if voters reject the constitution, was it not culpable of Mr Blair to have signed it, unnecessarily confronting voters with such a choice, when he could simply have vetoed it?

In fact, he concludes, failure to ratify the constitution means only that the Nice treaty will continue to govern the EU. The real danger is an attempt by “europhobes” and possibly some on the continent to convince British voters that, since others want to go ahead and Britain does not, the UK should leave the Union voluntarily. The electorate might well be susceptible to such suggestions in the wake of a No vote.

According to Rostowski, the unwillingness of the main parties in Britain to face the issues means that the country is sleepwalking towards a decision.

The Guardian, on the other hand, applauds Blair's "straight question" but questions ministers' decision not to promote the European issue unduly before polling day. "This is a dangerous game," it says.

By sidelining the argument until after the election, they cede the issue to the Tory and media obsession with Brussels in the meantime, as the latest furore over asylum policy so clearly illustrates. Until battle really is joined, Labour's approach is making the task of the yes campaign all the harder.
The Times foregoes comment and restricts itself to a simple news report, deciding that the EU referendum question is "made easy on the eye", but noted that the Government was attacked by its own Labour MPs for mounting a diversion from the forthcoming general election campaign, articulated by Ian Davidson, Labour MP for Glasgow Pollok, who said: "This is a regrettable diversion from Labour’s general election campaign."

Meanwhile, Chris Davies, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the EU parliament, on the basis of opinion polls on the constitution has told the government that there was "not a cat in hell's chance" of winning the referendum. A "yes" vote is "a no-hoper", he says, accusing the government yesterday of trying to "frighten people" into voting for it. He believes scare tactics play into the hands of "europhobes".

Over term, the debate will no doubt settle down as the main issues become clearer, but for the moment sentiment is all over the place.

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