Let the battle begin!

Blair faces uphill battle on Constitution

Tony Blair is now engaged in one of the toughest battles of his Downing Street tenure, to try to persuade the British public to accept the newly agreed EU constitution. But the strong showing of the UK Independence Party in the recent elections has meant that the Prime Minister faces an uphill battle to win over a largely hostile anti-EU British public.

Speaking after 25 EU leaders agreed to the historic constitutional document, Blair hailed the deal as, “a success for Britain and a success for Europe”. Euro-sceptics accused Blair of betrayal and Conservative leader Michael Howard branded his stance a “put-up job”. But the Prime Minister expressed confidence about his chances of winning a referendum on the treaty and claimed the agreement retains essential British vetoes and sets a new shape for Europe. He acknowledged he would face attacks, but said the talks showed that there were allies ready to back Britain’s vision for the EU in the ‘new Europe’.

What’s in the agreed document

The new constitution contains a charter of fundamental rights and a detailed catalogue of how the union will conduct a wide range of internal and foreign policies. Under new voting rules, new measures can only be passed if they have the backing of at least 55 per cent of EU states, representing at least 65 per cent of the total population.

The UK has kept its vetoes on economic policy, defence and foreign affairs. It can also opt out of majority decisions on cross-border criminal matters and social security for migrant workers. But Euro-sceptics have accused the government of capitulation to Brussels.

Robert Kilroy-Silk, the newly elected MEP for the UK Independence Party, even compared Blair’s policy to that of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy towards Nazi Germany. “This is the beginning of the end of Britain as a nation state governing itself,” he said on television. But Blair said a referendum “yes” vote was still achievable if people understood the real nature of the treaty. He told the BBC’s David Frost that the looming political debate over the new constitution would be “a battle between reality and myth”. He said that leaving the EU would be “an act of foolishness”.

Barroso emerged as broker

In spite of fears that EU members would not secure agreement about the EU constitution, a deal was finally reached, but only after days of wrangling between heads of state, notably between Britain and France. Some commentators regarded Portugese Prime Minister Barroso as an intermediary between the warring factions, a centre-right figure trusted by Chirac, but firmly allied to Blair and Bush on the Gulf War – a statesman who could reconcile both camps.

The French and the Germans were clearly pressing for closer integration to give the EU political power on a par with the United States, but Portugal, alongside Italy, Greece and Britain, was among the more sceptical nations. On another key bone of contention – the post of European commission president – Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, were both considered to be too federalist by Tony Blair. Barroso supported the British leader on this issue and forced Verhofstadt to withdraw his name.

Next steps

Every country in the EU must now ratify the treaty. Unlike Britain, Portugal is not committed to a referendum and is still to make up its mind on whether to the put the constitution to the people, or whether to merely have it ratified by parliament. The Portuguese electorate are not as Euro-sceptic as their British counterparts, but attitudes may be hardening in the wake of the recent entry of poorer countries from Eastern Europe. There is also some pressure on the Portuguese government to hold a referendum. Last weekend, 300 prominent people, including economists and lawyers, signed a petition published in the Expresso newspaper calling for a vote. But indications are that the government seems unlikely to heed this advice.