Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday he will call a British referendum on the European Union’s constitution, confirming an abrupt reversal of policy by a government which had been adamantly opposed to such a vote.
Blair’s policy shift, the most significant since he came to power in 1997, follows months of pressure by the main opposition Conservative Party, which claims the constitution will undermine Britain’s sovereignty and wants to put it to voters.
No date was announced for the referendum, which would follow some months after the conclusion of a treaty and debate in Parliament.
“It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country, Britain, wants to be at the center and heart of European decision-making or not; time to decide whether our destiny lies as a leading partner and ally of Europe, or on its margins,” Blair said in the House of Commons.
The government had argued against a national poll, insisting that the constitution, which aims to streamline decision making in the EU, would not fundamentally alter Britain’s relationship with the bloc and no vote was needed.
'Sign of weakness'
The reversal in allowing the first nationwide poll since 1975 is a sign that Blair’s authority has eroded. Since the Iraq war, Blair’s personal ratings have slumped and he is struggling to regain public trust.
“It is a sign of weakness,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who noted the government had failed to successfully argue its pro-European agenda.
Several national newspaper had taken up the call for a referendum. “Blair’s EU humiliation,” the Daily Mail’s front page headline said Tuesday.
Opinion polls find that many Britons are ambivalent or skeptical about closer European integration, fearing the constitution will create a European super state, and a referendum on the issue is likely to be tight.
Denmark, Ireland and Luxembourg have already announced they will hold referendums on the constitution and several other countries, including The Netherlands, Poland, Italy, Spain and Portugal are likely to do so.
In order for the constitution to come into force, all 25 states must ratify it.
Blair’s office said that if EU leaders agree on the treaty in June, it will first be scrutinized and debated by lawmakers in the House of Commons, before a public vote.
'Myth' and 'misperception'
Blair’s official spokesman said the constitution had been shrouded by “myth” and “misperception,” and that a full debate by Parliament, followed by a referendum would allow the reality to emerge.
“There are myths about it. There are misperceptions about it. Therefore it is entirely right that Parliament should have the ability to scrutinize the constitution, if it is agreed, in detail, that the public should be able to see that scrutiny and then to make the decision,” he said.
Any referendum would be unlikely before national elections, expected in May 2005.
The largely euroskeptic Conservatives say a constitution would undermine the country’s powers over criminal justice, tax and foreign policy. The party is making the referendum a central plank of their campaign for European elections on June 10.
Voters traditionally use European elections to vent their grievances about the party in power. A shift in government policy could defuse the referendum issue as one possible liability for the government.
“It is about buying time, trying to take Europe out of the agenda,” said Curtice.
Blair’s government has held several regional referendums, on issues such as devolved government and directly elected mayors.
A referendum on the constitution would be the first nationwide poll since 1975, when Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson consulted the public on Britain’s continued membership of what was then the European Common Market.
That referendum endorsed Britain’s membership with a 67 percent “yes” vote on a 65 percent turnout.