Brown to allow UK to have a referendum on Europe

London Evening Standard
Monday June 18, 2007

Gordon Brown dramatically raised the stakes on Europe last night by threatening to let the British people have a referendum on the results of this week's critical summit.

In a clear warning to Tony Blair he offered to put the next European treaty to a popular vote if it fails to take account of Britain's objections.

With two out of three voters declaring themselves firmly opposed to an EU super-state, a referendum would be certain to produce a resounding "No".

Mr Brown's willingness to deploy the "nuclear option" in the event of a British defeat in Brussels sends a clear message to other EU countries that the UK will not budge.

It leaves Mr Blair in no doubt that if he surrenders in Brussels this week and accepts a weakening of British power, Mr Brown is willing to humiliate him by blocking the deal.

And it sets the stage for a bruising confrontation that diplomats now predict could end in a resounding failure for the German presidency - which is pushing for a new constitution - and no deal.

EU leaders meet on Thursday to hammer out a replacement for the discredited constitution that was resoundingly rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

Britain is demanding a series of opt-outs in key areas, while Poland is threatening to veto the treaty outright if it does not get its way on voting rights.

Mr Blair - with Mr Brown's backing - has set out a number of negotiating "red lines" on which he is refusing to give way.

These include maintaining the British veto on justice, home affairs and social security issues, and an opt out on the contentious Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The Chancellor has backed the Prime Minister's claim that a new "amending treaty" that strips out the excesses of the constitution would not require a referendum.

Although he is working closely with Mr Blair, his allies fear that the Prime Minister will cave in to pressure from France and Germany rather than have his final days in office marred by failure in Europe.

With speculation growing that he might be tempted to become the EU's first permanent president under proposals being discussed at the summit this week, he is eager not to damage his credentials as a pro-European politician.

The Prime Minister's insistence on representing Britain at a vital summit just days before he is due to quit has caused profound anxiety in the Brown camp.

The Chancellor has been closely involved in hammering out the British negotiating position, but is desperate to avoid having his first months in office overshadowed by a row over Europe.

He has been under growing pressure to stick to Labour's pledge to put the next treaty on the future shape of Europe to a referendum.

But he does not want to have to defend a deal in a vote he knows he would lose. A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times yesterday showed 70 per cent of people want a referendum.

Yesterday his close ally Geoff Hoon revealed that Mr Brown would be willing to see an EU deal put to a vote if it failed to meet British interests.

Mr Hoon, who as Europe minister has been closely involved in the negotiations, told the BBC's World This Weekend programme: "Clearly a judgment has got to be made in terms of what is in the final package.

"It is important not to judge the outcome of the negotiations, but equally we are trying to negotiate an amending treaty - a treaty that is consistent with the treaties that have, in the past, changed the way the European Union works.

"In order to be consistent it is necessary to wait and see what is the result of those negotiations."

Asked if Mr Brown would concede a referendum, he said: "That's absolutely the case."

Shadow chancellor George Osborne renewed Tory calls for a referendum if the treaty transferred power to the EU.

"This is what we were promised by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown just a couple of years," he told BBC's Politics Show.

"It would be extraordinary if Gordon Brown's first act would be to rule out giving the British public a say as something as fundamental as the transfer of power to the EU."

Last night Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague said: "If this is a u-turn by ministers it will be a very welcome one.

"Labour promised a referendum on the EU constitution and it would be utterly unacceptable for them to break their word."

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