Labour rebels demand EU referendum

TONY Blair yesterday faced a growing Commons rebellion over his refusal to hold a referendum on plans to give the European Union fresh powers in a new constitution.

Labour MPs from both sides of the single currency debate will next month launch a campaign which is expected to call for a breakaway referendum if the Prime Minister refuses to call an official poll.

The storm erupted as Mr Blair held talks yesterday with Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France, on his plans for a draft EU constitution.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Rebel Labour MPs, who have defied Mr Blair over Iraq, foundation hospitals and university tuition fees, are now set to join forces with the Conservatives over calls for a EU referendum.

They MPs argue that the new constitution, which will streamline power in Brussels so the number of member states can move from 15 to 25, needs direct public approval.

Making the EU manageable when the Czech Republic and Cyprus are members will require simplifying voting procedures - and reducing the power of veto. Such reforms, it is argued, will mark a material constitutional change.

John Cryer, the Labour MP for Hornchurch, said he will be one of the conveners of the group to be launched next week.

"The time we should have a referendum is when there are changes to be made in the powers of parliament and the constitution and ministers," he said. "That is what’s being proposed."

Frank Field, the former social security minister, has said will table a Commons motion calling for a vote.

"On issues that decide whether we close the book on Great Britain, I think the people should decide, not politicians," he said, adding that the Labour rebels may seek to join forces with the Conservatives to try and overpower Mr Blair’s government by passing a law.

"If an opposition party chooses to give time to this bill, we could effectively have a second reading and the government would have to declare its hand," he said.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Kelvin Hopkins, the Labour MP for Luton North, has also tabled a motion signed by both eurosceptic and Europhile Labour MPs drawing attention to a recent poll which showed 84 per cent of British voters demanding a referendum.

"We believe that the British people should be made fully aware of the significance of such a step for the future of Britain and for Europe," his motion reads.

"A decision by Britain to support or oppose a new treaty would not have legitimacy without the genuine consent of the British people."

The idea of a referendum has been angrily dismissed by British ministers. Peter Hain, the Wales Secretary, who has retained his position on the EU constitution negotiating team, has told the MPs to "put away your placards".

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, added his voice yesterday, saying the government can be trusted not to sign anything which would cede an unacceptable amount of power to Brussels.

He said: "We don’t think it appropriate to have [a referendum] on the outcome of an inter-governmental conference which won’t take place until the end of this year on some very complex changes, but ones that aren’t fundamentally going to alter the nature of our relationship with the European Union."

Michael Ancram, the shadow foreign secretary, said the proposed changed run far deeper. "This is actually going to change the whole nature of Europe and our part in Europe if it’s allowed to go through," he said. "It’s going to move us from being a Europe of nations into being what Giscard d’Estaing wants to call a ‘United Europe’."

The Prime Minister was expected to expected to use his meeting with Mr Giscard d’Estaing to convey serious reservations about the draft constitution.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

This is understood to have included giving a list of conditions under which Britain would use its veto.

Yesterday was the last time the two will meet before the European Convention, which Mr Giscard d’Estaing chairs, publishes the draft blueprint for a new EU constitution

Downing Street said yesterday that calls for a referen- dum had been fuelled by alarmist stories which misunderstand the idea behind the constitution.

"Giscard said himself this is not part of some plot to establish a European superstate," the No 10 spokesman said. "Rather, it’s building the vision that first became possible when the first brick came out of the Berlin Wall."

Sweden, Ireland, Denmark and Spain are understood already to be planning referendums on the EU constitution for next year. Others are expected to join them.

The 1997 referendum for the Scottish Parliament is used by campaigners as an example of what the government should be organising now.

While the Conservatives were opposed to referenda while in office, Iain Duncan Smith said that his calls for a vote this time are based on a precedent set by Mr Blair.

"Referenda have now become the norm wherever changes have been proposed to the way people are represented and governed," he said.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"But when it comes to the European constitution - a constitution that will decide how every person in this country is governed, regardless of where they live - the government doesn’t think the British people need a say."