PM delays campaign on EU constitution until after election

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The Government tentatively launched its drive to win a yes vote in the referendum on the EU constitution yesterday but shelved its real campaign until after a general election. The European Union Bill, published yesterday, revealed the wording of the question in the referendum expected in spring next year.

In the first national referendum since 1975, Britons will be asked: "Should the United Kingdom approve the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union?"

A surprise provision in the Bill would allow ministers to call a "double referendum" on both the new EU treaty and joining the euro, an option favoured by some pro-Europeans but which Downing Street has dismissed.

The clause would also allow the referendum on the constitution to be held on the same day as local authority elections, although the Electoral Commission has warned that might confuse voters.

Tony Blair has decided not to push the measure through Parliament before the election expected in May, a course also favoured by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. The Prime Minister wants to play down Europe as an election issue.

Mr Straw warned yesterday that Britain will be reduced to "second-class status" in Europe if it rejects the proposed treaty. "Britain will be isolated and weak in Europe, going cap in hand to our partners, and may be forced, in time, to accept some kind of second-class status in Europe as others go ahead without us. But if we endorse the new treaty, we fix the framework for our kind of Europe, one in which Britain is more prosperous and more powerful."

The Foreign Secretary said "the real patriotic case" was overwhelmingly in favour of Britain's engagement in the EU. "It is time pro-Europeans claimed this argument. At stake is nothing less than the very nature of Britain's power in the world. Being a patriot by definition means wanting Britain to be prosperous at home and strong and influential abroad. Our role as a leading member of the EU is a crucial part of securing that."

The Government insists the treaty will streamline the working of the 25-country EU and give national governments a stronger grip. But opponents say it would take Britain a further step to a European superstate through the extension of majority voting.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the referendum question "enables the argument to be enjoined fairly and squarely on both sides. The sooner we get on with this, the better".

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "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." Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said that the new constitution would hand more power to Brussels.

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