» Monday, April 19, 2004

European Constitution

Asked if the Foreign Secretary would make an announcement about a referendum on the EU Constitution in his Statement to the House tomorrow, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that Mr Straw would provide an update on the EU Constitution. Questioned as to whether the Cabinet would need to discuss the proposal to hold a referendum before a final decision was made, the PMOS said that he had no intention of pre-empting what Mr Straw might say in his Statement tomorrow in the House, which was obviously the appropriate place for any comments to be made. That said, as we had made clear at the end of the last Brussels Summit in March, people could judge for themselves the reality of a new Constitution that was agreed – if it was agreed – in June. The sooner that reality was held up to the light of the scrutiny of Parliament, the better. In the Government’s view, the Parliamentary process was the right place to go, and the sooner people could deal with the reality of the situation, rather than myths or scare stories, the better. Put to him that the Prime Minister had told journalists at the end of the Brussels Summit in March that there would not be a referendum, the PMOS repeated that he had no intention of pre-empting the Foreign Secretary’s Statement tomorrow. However, he would draw journalists’ attention to the Prime Minister’s words on the Today Programme on Saturday when he had said that nothing had changed, but that if anything did, then the Government would obviously tell the people. Asked if anything had changed since Saturday, the PMOS said that the position remained as set out by the Prime Minister on the Today Programme. He had nothing further to add.

Asked the Prime Minister’s view on whether referendums should be held as a matter of principle, the PMOS said that each case would vary according to the circumstances. He was not in the business of dealing with hypothetical scenarios. Asked if a referendum on the EU Constitution would be held, the PMOS repeated that he was not going to pre-empt the Foreign Secretary’s Statement tomorrow. Asked when Cabinet had last discussed the referendum issue, the PMOS said that the EU Constitution was frequently discussed at Cabinet meetings and between Cabinet colleagues. Asked if there had been any sort of Cabinet discussion over the weekend, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister remained in regular contact with his Cabinet colleagues, as you would expect, and discussed issues with them in a variety of formats.

Asked how soon people would be able to judge the new Constitution for themselves, the PMOS repeated that he had no intention of pre-empting Mr Straw’s Statement. He had simply been underlining the point that the Government believed people should judge the reality of any Constitution for themselves – a Constitution which, it should be noted, had yet to be agreed – and see it held up to the light of Parliamentary scrutiny. He pointed out that, were a Constitution to be agreed in June, it would take time for any EU legislation to emerge. That would push us into the autumn. However, these were matters which the Foreign Secretary would no doubt deal with tomorrow.

Asked if the Government continued to believe that an EU Constitution would not undermine British sovereignty, the PMOS said that any Constitution to which we would agree would not cross our red lines and ipso facto would not undermine our position. Asked why, if that was the case, the Government had decided to hold a referendum, the PMOS repeated that he was not going to pre-empt Mr Straw’s Statement. As we had said at the end of the last Brussels Summit, the sooner people saw the Constitution for themselves set out in back and white, rather than rely on myths and scare stories, the better.

Asked if the best – and first – place for public scrutiny of the Constitution was through all stages of the Parliamentary process, the PMOS said that the Parliamentary process was the best way to examine the details of any emerging Constitution. That was the way things had been done in the past. Asked if a Bill would be introduced in the autumn, the PMOS pointed out that by the time the Constitution was translated and turned into a legal document, it would probably be around October/November time. Put to him that the document would go before Parliament as an EU Treaty which could not be amended in any event, which would mean that a referendum could easily be held at the start of the Parliamentary process rather than at its end, the PMOS said that Parliamentary scrutiny of any treaty was important, particularly anything which might emerge in June.

Asked to explain why a referendum could not be held on the basis of the Constitution agreed in June, the PMOS said that in the Government’s view, Parliamentary scrutiny – and therefore the role of Parliament – was important. Asked if there was an established precedent to support the Government’s view, the PMOS said that the Government’s overall approach was to give Parliament its due rights and due responsibilities.

Asked if the Prime Minister continued to believe that the draft Constitution was simply a ‘tidying up exercise’, the PMOS said the Prime Minister continued to believe that the draft Constitution was an essential part of the enlargement process for Europe which did not threaten this country’s basic position. In fact, it was an advantage inasmuch as it would open up Europe, bring in more members and also mean that it would be able to operate more effectively at twenty-five than it was currently able to do.

Questioned as to whether the Government would dismiss any arguments against the Constitution as ‘myths’ and ‘scare stories’ ‘based on untruths’, the PMOS said no. He was simply making the point that the sooner an agreement on the Constitution was reached, the sooner it could be set out in black and white so as to allow people to view it on a purely factual basis. At the moment, we had to deal with generalisations. We wanted to deal with the specifics. Asked if he was suggesting that no factual or rational arguments had been put forward in opposition to the Constitution, the PMOS said that that was a sweeping generalisation in itself. It was clear that we needed an agreement on the Constitution to be reached sooner rather than later.

Asked if the Prime Minister would accept the fact that a rejection of the Constitution either by Parliament or in a referendum would essentially mean having to withdraw from the EU, the PMOS said that it wasn’t his policy to answer hypothetical questions. Journalists should exercise a little patience and wait for Jack Straw’s Statement tomorrow.

Asked how much work the EU still needed to do on the EU Constitution, how open to negotiation our red lines were and whether agreement on the Constitution could indeed be reached by June, the PMOS said that we took our lead from the Irish Presidency’s assessment of the situation because they were the ones in the driving seat. We had emerged from the last European Summit in Brussels with a new sense of momentum and a recognition that there was a desire to try to agree a Constitution by June. Of course, the Irish Government themselves would freely admit that that did not, of itself, guarantee success. There were still difficult issues to be resolved, such as the issue of majority voting. In our view, however, there was a new drive, a new momentum and a new wish to achieve a Constitution. The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, was a very experienced negotiator who knew his way around the European scene. He had been talking to European leaders about this matter and we would await the outcome of those discussions.

Asked if the Government still believed that life would go on without a European Constitution, the PMOS said that both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary had underlined that while life would indeed go on, a Europe at twenty-five needed more coherence. The Prime Minister himself had spoken of the difficulty of making decisions in a Europe at twenty-five which continued to operate under the old system. That was why it was imperative to reach agreement – and in this country’s interests to do so.

Asked to explain why Jack Straw was making a Statement on the EU White Paper, the PMOS said that he would set out our coherent approach to the EU in general. He pointed out that this was the second EU White Paper. Asked why the Prime Minister would not be making the Statement, the PMOS pointed out that it was the Foreign Secretary who was responsible for seeing through the detail of the EU Constitution, both in terms of the negotiation and in terms of the Parliamentary process. He was therefore the obvious person to provide an update to Parliament tomorrow. However, things had still to be finalised.

Asked for a reaction to reports that the Prime Minister had discussed the issue of a referendum with Rupert Murdoch, the PMOS said that he was not aware of any such discussions having taken place.

Briefing took place at 11:00 | Search for related news


  1. I wholeheartedly disagree with the government changing policy on whether or not a referendum is appropriate. A democracy is signified by representation of the tax-paying public. This system works, and is in place because (a) we couldn’t fit every taxpayer into a Parliamentary House (fun as that may be)and (b) because the general public can easily be swayed when either all the facts aren’t at hand, or when they have jobs, finances, families etc on their mind. An M.P.’s JOB is to think about, and vote on, major political decisions, so they can make a right decision for the voter’s they represent. That is democracy. That is how democracy should be run.

    Comment by Benjamin P — 19 Apr 2004 on 8:04 pm | Link
  2. That may be so, however even though it’s their job to think about it, it’s in their vested interests to follow the whips and throw their lot in with party policy. In that sense their choice is about as objective as your average Mr Smith on the street.

    I’m far happier with an open debate that engages with the public than a closed afair in parliament which will only breed more apathy, and likely swell the numbers of the despicable BNP.

    Comment by Gregor Hopkins — 19 Apr 2004 on 9:36 pm | Link
  3. I’m not really sure that representative democracy works that well when considering significant constitutional change. I’d be happier for Parliament to decide whether or not to ratify the Constitution on its own if there were an intervening General Election (as in the 1910 constitutional crisis). For such an issue to be decided by a sitting Government on a whipped vote seems to me to be completely unacceptable.

    Comment by Chris Lightfoot — 20 Apr 2004 on 12:46 am | Link
  4. Isn’t the idea of MP’s making a decision on behalf of their voters, for their voters, but not being swayed by the factors which sway the public, somewhat open to misinterpretation and error? if not open abuse?

    The general public don’t have all the facts, and yes it can be assumed to be impossible for all the facts to be presented to the public, also on certain subjects it would be a security risk, and not beneficial.

    But do the public get enough facts? at what level of public "sway" should the government discount the wishes of the populace?

    Being pro euro, I am in theory less happy with the idea of a referendum. Most likely it will get voted down by a lot of people who politically and quite possibly personally I don’t and wouldn’t like.

    If I were to suggest that because I think they are wrong and have supposedly a less informed and "incorrect" view their opinions don’t count then it would be at best very very shaky ground.

    Comment by Lodjer — 20 Apr 2004 on 9:36 am | Link
  5. I don’t care if there’s a referendum – so long as they’re willing to put in the effort to win it. What I don’t want to see is a rejected constitution due to a half-hearted effort on the part of the government just so it can get re-elected.

    If the choice is between a joining of the constitution and a following ousting of Labor from government, or a Labor that sticks and a constitution voted down by the public, I know which one I’d choose to lose. One of the two is important to the long-term economic survival of the country; I believe my opinion on which one may be different than the current government.

    Comment by Gregory Block — 20 Apr 2004 on 10:20 am | Link
  6. I don’t think there’s much chance of the government losing a referendum – historical evidence shows that most governments will pull out all the stops to win a referendum, and Europe usually has enough cross-party support to see it through – even Mrs T wore a ‘Vote Yes’ t-shirt in the 1975 referendum on Europe. There are plenty of voters, Tory or otherwise who would rather line up behind Ken Clarke than Michael Howard. (Am I the only person who feels vaguely nauseous when hearing him say he ‘trusts the peepull’?)

    It is interesting – given that there are no constitutional grounds for a referendum – to speculate on why Tone thought he had to have one. I suspect that it has more than a little to do with improving his image as a leader who is listening to the public. This has worn a little thin over the last year.

    Comment by Ruth — 20 Apr 2004 on 1:15 pm | Link
  7. OK folk I’ll be a minority voice

    I think the EU and its constitution are not in the best interests of the UK.
    I have spent enough time in (week long) meetings and negotiations with representatives of the USA and various European Countries to have formed the opinion that we always were and always will be better off with a distance between the UK, Europe and the USA.

    and I’m sorry to tell some of you ‘bloggers’ that I am intelligent enough to understand the in’s and out’s of legal framework documents -and have indeed survived (more than once) the perverse interpretations of legal documents.

    To opine that Politicians are capable of making decisions on our behalf is to ignore most of what has happened int he last 10 years.

    I hope that the UK referendum on the EU constitution is the first step of our withdrawal from the EU.

    and whilst we are at it lets cut our losses on the channel tunnel by filling both ends and using the void for storing oil.

    Comment by Roger Huffadine — 20 Apr 2004 on 10:25 pm | Link

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