Blair fends off demands for EU treaty referendum

Tony Blair admitted yesterday that the outcome of negotiations on a new European Union treaty would be "absolutely fundamental", but denied that the treaty required approval in a referendum.

The Prime Minister was accused by the Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, of retreating from a previous pledge to allow a referendum on the new EU constitution if it involved "fundamental change".

Amid noisy exchanges in the Commons, Mr Blair dismissed reports in Eurosceptic newspapers that he was ready to allow a charter of fundamental rights, which could allow European judges to overrule British courts, to be incorporated into the new treaty.

"We will not sell out [on] the issue of the European charter of fundamental rights. There is no way that that should extend the legal jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That position, in my view, will be secured in the Intergovernmental Conference that is coming up," he said.

Mr Duncan Smith accused Mr Blair of "deliberate deceit" and challenged him over private remarks to a group of officials that he regarded the new EU treaty as a more important issue than Iraq.

The Tory leader said: "In public, the Government says that the European constitution is just a tidying up exercise. In private, we now know that the Prime Minister has said that it is absolutely fundamental - it will define the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe for generations. Which of these two faces of the Government should we believe?"

But the Prime Minister insisted that there was no need for a referendum because Britain had secured its vital national interests and would not give any of them up in talks on the treaty, which begin in Rome next month.

Promising that Britain would not surrender control of taxation, defence and foreign policy to the EU, Mr Blair said: "The outcome of the constitution is ... absolutely fundamental but it is the right thing for us. If we were to give any of our main positions away then yes, that would be a different position. But we are not going to do that, we are going to secure every single one of those red lines. That is why the draft constitution is good for Britain and for Europe, and essential if we are going to make enlargement work and secure British interests."

Mr Blair said not a single European government supported the Tory position. If the Tories were in power, he claimed, they would veto the whole treaty and "get to where they want to be - which is saying Britain should get out of the European Union".

He added: "Overall, this constitution is right, because if we expand Europe from 15 to 25 members we have to have a more effective and efficient way of working.

"If we simply say no to everything coming out of Europe ... what we would do is not advance the interests of this country, we would actually betray them."

But the Prime Minister also came under pressure to hold a referendum from some Labour MPs. George Stevenson, MP for Stoke South, said it could help boost the "relative lack of interest" among the public in the EU, which was seen as "effectively the fiefdom of the political elite".

An ICM poll for the pro-referendum campaign Vote 2004, found that 87 per cent of Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituents thought the public should be given a say on the new treaty. Backing for a referendum was just as strong among Labour voters as among supporters of other parties. Of those questioned, just 10 per cent thought MPs should decide on whether the constitution is adopted, as Mr Blair wants.

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