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Blair’s EU u-turn

FOR YEARS, Britain’s New Labour government had ruled out holding a referendum on an EU constitution. As recently as 13 April, an editorial in the Financial Times advised against, saying that a referendum was unnecessary and politically dangerous. Then in parliament on 20 April, Tony Blair slammed his New Labour vehicle into reverse gear, just six months after he stole Margaret Thatcher’s ‘not for turning’ speech – Blair uses her policies, why not her words? There is now to be a referendum, after all, on condition that the new EU constitution currently being negotiated is agreed in Brussels by 19 June.

It was a sudden move and a political gamble, and was not part of some long-term strategy. Blair was bounced into this decision for short-term political expediency, and it could seriously threaten his position and that of the next New Labour leader. It was, in fact, a consequence of the Iraq war and the Madrid bombings on 11 March. The Spanish conservative Popular Party (PP) government at the time tried to exploit the situation for its own electoral gain by blaming Basque separatists when a group linked to al-Qa’ida was responsible. This ignited a mass opposition movement, and in elections on 14 March the PP was thrown out of office. In its place, PSOE (a neo-liberal party with a social democratic past) was elected after promising to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.

The result also ushered in a softening of Spain’s stance over the reallocation of votes in EU structures to take account of the enlargement from 15 to 25 states. Blair would have preferred it if opposition from Spain and Poland had scuppered the talks. But with PSOE eager to rebuild relations with other European powers after it had snubbed the US over Iraq, the chances of the constitution going through apparently increased.

With the European and local elections looming on 10 June, Blair and a small cabinet cabal decided – without consulting most of the cabinet – that they had to move to cut across populist appeals from the Tories and Liberal Democrats for ‘the people to have their say’. The government has been forced to take account of Michael Howard’s leadership of the Conservative Party, which certainly has more bite than his predecessor, the faceless Iain Duncan Smith. The Tories had been campaigning on the issue before the u-turn, sending out leaflets to two million Tory supporters in early April. New Labour hopes that a referendum campaign will reignite civil war in the Tory party before the next general election. However, there are deep fault lines running through New Labour, too.

Much more important than any of these second-rate party hacks in the decision-making was Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire, international media magnate and owner of the tabloid Sun ‘newspaper’ (an influential, rabid right-wing rag with a mass circulation aimed at working-class people). Murdoch sent his emissary, Irwin Steltzer, to Downing Street where he threatened to pull the Sun’s support for Blair if he refused to change tack – a chilling prospect for media-fixated New Labour.

Any referendum campaign will be run by the anti-working class mass media, whether pro- or anti-EU constitution. An estimated 22 million people in Britain buy daily newspapers which can be described as ‘Eurosceptic’, from a pro-big business perspective. Murdoch’s Sky TV and other media will base their campaign on vile nationalism and prejudice. Behind his hostility to the EU is Murdoch’s enthusiasm for hitching Britain as an appendage to US capitalism, preferably under the direction of right-wing Republicans. Murdoch’s media will be joined by the far-right.

It remains to be seen what effect this u-turn will have on the government and Blair’s already mortally wounded authority – a YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph in May put Howard and Blair neck-and-neck on 29% ‘popularity’.

Blair’s hope lies in trying to rig the question posed on the ballot paper in his favour, and in turning the referendum into a decision on the wider issue of membership of the EU itself, warning of the ‘dire consequences’ for Britain if the constitution is not passed. The recent verbal assault on Blair by French president, Jacques Chirac – "ratify or quit" the EU – plays to this agenda. A victory could see the prime minister leaving Number 10 on a high, claiming to have ‘taken Britain into the heart of Europe’, maybe with an eye on the EU presidency. Such is the stuff of delusion.

But a referendum defeat would have dire consequences for New Labour. It is the most likely scenario. It would ruin Blair politically, if Iraq doesn’t get there first. And it would be a catastrophic start for any new leader, who would be left trying to quell bitter internal fall-out.

Blair has set a timetable which ensures that any referendum can only take place after the next general election – widely expected in May or June 2005 – as a damage limitation exercise. The constitution will have to be passed by parliament before a referendum takes place. And, given the parliamentary timetable (which includes very generous time off for summer holidays), that could take until March 2005. Under UK law, a referendum must be preceded by a ten-week campaign, and is unlikely to be conducted at the same time as a general election. So, autumn 2005 is being put forward as a likely possibility. Some ministers also hope that, by the time a vote is taken on the constitution, referendums in other EU countries could have defeated the constitution, as it has to be ratified by all the countries involved.

Blair is likely to find the bitter anger at his government’s domestic and international policies played out in the different elections looming. The last referendum in Britain, held by the Labour Party in 1975, saw 67% in favour of staying in the European Community (forerunner of the EU) on a 64.5% turnout. Those figures, too, are something Blair can only dream of.

Manny Thain


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