EU referendum question revealed

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The question to be asked in the referendum on the EU constitution will be "Should the United Kingdom approve the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union?", the Government said today.

The question to be asked in the referendum on the EU constitution will be "Should the United Kingdom approve the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union?", the Government said today.

The question to go on the ballot papers was disclosed when Foreign Secretary Jack Straw published the European Union Bill, which provides for the UK to ratify the treaty subject to the referendum.

If MPs approve the Bill, the poll is expected to be held early next year.

The Chancellor Gordon Brown said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I believe people will see the question as a simple, straightforward question about whether people support the new EU constitution."

The constitution is designed to streamline EU decision-making and avoid gridlock as the Union continues to expand to possibly 30 nations in the next few years.

The treaty was signed by all 25 current EU members in Rome on October 29 last year and is due to come into force in November 2006, provided it is ratified by all member states, several of which will hold a referendum.

The Tories have warned that adoption of the constitution would mark the creation of a federal superstate. Michael Howard's party says that if it wins the general election - expected on 5 May - a referendum would be held by October.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is acutely aware that he faces a tough task if he is to persuade the British public to abandon their traditional Euro-scepticism and support the document.

Mr Blair told the Financial Times today that Britain would hold a referendum on the European constitution "some time in 2006 but when, I don't know".

He refused to be drawn further on the UK poll and said he did not know when other countries were planning to hold their referendums.

There have been suggestions that some ministers were keen to nudge the public towards a "Yes" with a more loaded question, possibly adding a rider pointing out that the Constitution had been endorsed by Parliament.

But according to some reports the idea was dropped because of concerns that the electoral watchdog, the Electoral Commission, might accuse the Government of trying to influence the outcome unfairly.

Lucy Powell, campaign director of the pro-EU Britain in Europe pressure group, said: "We look forward to a proper debate on the Treaty and the proposals it contains.

"We hope the Parliamentary debate will provide - for the first time - an opportunity for the public to hear both sides of the story.

"Now that it is clear that the referendum question is straightforward and non-controversial, perhaps we can concentrate on the important issues facing Britain and its relationship with its closest partners in Europe.

"There will be a stark choice facing voters: to continue with our present course of active engagement in Europe, or take a step into the unknown by rejecting the Treaty.

"The first course has served us well for over 30 years, ensuring British prosperity and higher living standards.

"The second course of action is fraught with uncertainty and would be a leap into the unknown."

Neil O'Brien, campaign director of Vote No, the campaign group against the Constitution, said: "Tony Blair promised a great campaign in which 'battle would be joined'.

"Now the Government is reduced to trying to sneak out the EU constitution Bill without even a press conference.

"The reality is that the Government doesn't want to discuss the EU Constitution ahead of the election because they know it is extremely unpopular with voters and with business.

"69% of voters and 60% of business leaders are against signing up to the EU Constitution.

"But instead of listening, the Government is planning to spend large amounts of taxpayers' money trying to sell the EU Constitution to voters.

"We hope that as the Bill goes through Parliament, the Government will heed the advice of the Electoral Commission and change the law to allow a fair referendum.

"Currently the law limits the spending of independent 'yes' and 'no' campaigners for up to six months, but the Government can spend as much taxpayers' money as it likes until 28 days before the referendum."

The Tories welcomed the question.

Shadow secretary of state for the family Theresa May told Today: "It certainly seems to be a fair question."

But she said the referendum should come before 2006. A Tory government would stage a referendum within three months of taking power at the general election, she said.

Shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram said: "The referendum question seems

straightforward. But the fact that the Government has slipped approval of this dangerous Constitution, which the great majority of British people oppose, in with the bill to let them have their say, is an underhand trick.

"They are two separate issues. There should be two separate bills. It is typical that Mr Blair wants to confuse the two.

"The fact is that this bill stands no chance of becoming law before the election. This is Tony Blair's cheap gesture to the pro-Constitution lobby while he runs scared of a debate on Europe he knows he cannot win."

The Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said: "I think that sounds a very neutral, balanced question to me.

"I think it enables the argument to be enjoined fairly and squarely on both sides."

Speaking on the Today programme, he said he expected the referendum would come in the first half of next year.

"The sooner we get on with this, the better," he said.

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