Sunday, June 17, 2007

Brown's Euro-Dilemma

On Thursday the European summit in Brussels will try to agree a new EU Treaty. The Treaty is a massive problem for Brown. The purpose of this “slimmed-down” version of the European Constitution (rejected by referendum in France and the Netherlands in 2005) is clearly to salvage as much as possible from the Constitution while avoiding a referendum. If a deal is agreed it will almost certainly be condemned as too federalist by the Tories, who are already demanding a referendum. Brown is arguing that there is no need for a referendum (there was no referendum over Maastricht or the Single European Act). The danger for Brown is that a refusal to hold a referendum will be an electoral albatross; with the Tories arguing that he is denying the voters a voice. It will also antagonise The Sun (which according to Martin Kettle in yesterday’s Guardian has already warned Brown: “Accept the Treaty and lose The Sun”). I doubt if Brown has the stomach to face down Murdoch. Brown’s options are therefore limited: rejecting the Treaty is difficult, since after all the Government did sign-up to the European Constitution in October 2004; and even if the UK succeeds in getting a plethora of opt-outs that will not satisfy the tabloids and the Tories. And if Blair agreed the Treaty and then Brown rejected it? What a complete disaster for the Government that would be!! (Let us hope that they are indeed “singing from the same hymn sheet” on this one). Alternatively, there may not be a deal at all if Poland refuses to accept a reform of voting weights in the Council of Ministers (Poland got rather too good a deal at Nice in 2001). Brown might breathe a sigh of relief if that happens; but from what I read it seems the Poles might buckle. What if Brown does a U-turn and opts for holding a referendum? One the one hand, a “No” vote so close to a General Election would give the Tories a boost. On the other hand, the Treaty – and the demand for a referendum - would not be a General Election issue. The Sun might stick with Brown if he offers a referendum. But that, of course, would be to sabotage Merkel’s whole strategy. It looks like a circle that can’t be squared.


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