Monday, June 25, 2007

All that good negotiatin' so the plebs can vote it down? Feck uvv!

Blair rejects call for EU referendum

by Matthew Tempest

Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman in the House of Commons on June 25 2007. Photograph: PA.
Tony Blair, the prime minister, with the new Labour leader and deputy leader, Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman, in the Commons today. Photograph: PA.

Holding a referendum on the EU treaty would entail "sucking the energy out of the country for months", Tony Blair said today.

Making his final full statement as prime minister before retiring on Wednesday, the prime minister rejected outright Tory demands for a plebiscite on the weekend agreement.

In an unusual move, the prime minister was joined on the frontbench for the statement by the new Labour leader, Gordon Brown, who will have to pilot the bill through parliament this autumn.

Mr Blair repeated his principal reason for refusing to grant a referendum: that Britain's "red lines" had not been breached by the marathon negotiations, which only came to a close at 5am on Saturday morning.

But Mr Blair conceded that the 48-hour talks had comprised "an exceptionally difficult negotiation".

And he made his revealing comment on the political costs of a referendum when under pressure from the Tory leader, David Cameron.

Mr Cameron declared that the treaty agreed was simply a constitution "that dare not speak its name".

The Conservative leader said that Mr Blair had sanctioned the transfer of powers from Britain to Brussels "without the permission of the British people".

To loud Tory cheers, he added: "This will be remembered as one of the most flagrant breaches of any of the promises you have made."

The prime minister accused Mr Cameron of saying he was "too busy" to attend a meeting of Europe's centre-right parties held by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to discuss the treaty.

Yet, Mr Blair added, Mr Cameron thought the treaty was so fundamentally important it would require a referendum that would "take months ... sucking energy out of the country for months".

The Tory argument is that Mr Blair agreed to a referendum on the constitution in 2005, and today's document is largely similar to that one.

With both positions well-rehearsed, the prime minister accused Mr Cameron of "going through the motions" by demanding a referendum.

And he pointed out that neither the Maastricht treaty nor the single European market treaty of 1986 had been put to a referendum by Tory governments.

Defending the deal achieved - which will still require a referendum at least in Ireland, if not in other EU states - Mr Blair insisted it was "quintessentially" in Britain's interests.

Amid noisy scenes in the Commons, he told MPs: "Over the past ten years Britain has moved from the margins of European debate to the centre. This is absolutely right for Britain."

And he added: "Britain has for a decade been in a leadership position in Europe. That is exactly where we should stay."

There is still some confusion over the treaty, with the Tories claiming Britain has given up a unilateral veto in over 60 areas and Mr Blair insisting it was nearer 40 - and many in largely technically or minor areas.

Mr Cameron accused him of signing up to a treaty "he'll never have to defend".

The Tory leader quoted the Irish foreign minister as saying that 90% of the original constitution - rejected by French and Dutch voters in referendums - remained in the new amending treaty.

And he said that the power of veto would be given away in such crucial areas as transport and energy.

The prime minister insisted that a new two-and-a-half-year EU presidency was "necessary for efficiency" and that Britain's "opt-ins" in areas of crime and immigration allowed the UK to "pick and chose ... on a case-by-case basis".

Mr Blair said that the UK had secured a legally-binding protocol on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and extended opt-in rights on migration, asylum and immigration issues.

He also said that the UK's social security and benefits system was "completely protected" while the common foreign and security policy remained essentially unchanged.

Original article posted here.

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