There is some confusion in the press today about whether or not there will be a referendum in the UK on the successor to the constitutional treaty.
Tony Blair has laid out four so-called “red lines”, things he will not budge on in the negotiations. He says that, because these red lines will be observed, the future treaty will be smaller than the previous one and so no referendum on it is required. (Read more about this here.)
Gordon Brown, who will succeed Tony Blair as prime minister after the summit this week but before the negotiations kicked off by the summit are concluded, has other ideas. (Read about this in the Daily Telegraph here.)
He has allowed the Europe minister Geoff Hoon, whom I suspect is hoping for a promotion, to disagree publicly with Blair’s position. (He can hardly be sacked now.) For Geoff Hoon, whether or not there will have to be a referendum is still open, depending on the outcome of the negotiations themselves. In one sense, this is entirely consistent with Blair’s position, but in another and more important sense it is very different.
For what is under discussion here is not the ratification method but the contents of the treaty itself. The problem is that a number of other member states are demanding a text more far-reaching than the British government can at present countenance. 18 member states ratified the original constitutional treaty, and they cannot be expected simply to give up on the ideas behind it because the UK tells them to.
Tony Blair’s approach, as ever, is to try to find agreement between the two sides. He talks up the expectation of reaching a mutually satisfactory agreement, because increased expectations will make the desired outcome more likely.
Gordon Brown, on the other hand, resorts not to flattery but to threats. If the rest of the EU does not listen to his position, he will call their bluff and put their desired treaty to a referendum in the UK. When the British vote No, as he is sure they would (particularly if the government was in effect recommending that they should), the whole treaty is again scuppered, and it is harder to see a way back a second time around.
Now, it is possible that this good cop/bad cop routine has been coordinated between Blair and Brown. However, I doubt it. Blair will be long gone from the scene by the time the negotiations come to a conclusion in December this year – the summit at the end of this week will lay out a mandate and a timetable for the negotiations, rather than actually engaging in them itself – and only the great clunking fist will remain.
Rather than trying to reconcile the eurosceptic British public with the needs and realities of modern-day Europe, Brown is going down the road of allowing the former to trump the latter. I don’t think this is the orderly transition we were promised.