Gordon Brown has begun the task of selling the new European Union treaty to Britain, but again insisted that there is no need to put it to a referendum.
At his first EU summit since becoming Prime Minister, Mr Brown gave his approval to the blueprint to streamline the Union's cumbersome decision-making procedures following its expansion to 27 members.
The treaty was discussed last night by EU leaders in Lisbon over a dinner of crêpe of vegetables, grilled sole with saffron rice and chocolate cake and strawberries. But there were potential hitches as Poland and Italy pressed for last-minute concessions before the summit ends today.
As the talks began, Mr Brown declared that the "national interest" had been safeguarded by four "red lines" in the treaty ensuring Britain would retain control of four areas: labour and social legislation; common law, police and judicial processes; foreign and defence policy; and tax and social security systems.
The Prime Minister has disappointed pro-Europeans by not putting the case for the treaty, allowing supporters of a referendum to make the running. But he signalled a change of approach, saying: "Let us now have this debate in the country." He promised a "very substantial number of days" debate in Parliament, adding: "People can judge for themselves, as I believe they will, [whether] the British national interest has been protected."
He defied the clamour for a referendum from some Labour MPs, the Tory Opposition, opinion polls and Eurosceptic newspapers, insisting the treaty would transfer fewer powers to the EU than the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, on which the then Tory Government did not hold a referendum.
Mr Brown sought to reassure a sceptical British public that he would try to shift the EU's focus away from debating how it worked and on to issues that mattered to them, such as jobs, prosperity and climate change. He hinted he would oppose any further review of the EU's structures.
"My intention is to move from this inward-looking discussion that has dominated debate in Europe now for many years," he said. "My focus will be away from institutional change, and persuading my [European] colleagues that it is not in our interests to have this inward-looking debate over the next few years. It is in our interests to focus entirely on the economic and social change that can benefit the British people."
Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, criticised Britain for demanding so many opt-outs. "Of course we regret that it was necessary to have some opt-outs from some countries. But we respect this. We prefer to have a solution that is broadly agreed with some specific opt-outs for some countries than not to move forward."
But the Tories dismissed Mr Brown's "red lines", and renewed their call for a referendum. William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "Every poll shows that the vast majority of the British people want the referendum he promised and do not believe his arguments. No wonder. His spurious red lines do not cover most of the renamed EU Constitution, and can easily be got round. Now that all his arguments against a referendum have crumbled, he is desperately trying to change the subject."
EU leaders were cautiously optimistic that the summit would approve the treaty in principle, knowing that a highly embarrassing failure would prolong their internal debate. The treaty would then be formally signed in December and, after being ratified in the 27 member states, take effect in January 2009.
But Poland, where an election takes place on Sunday, threatened to spoil the party by demanding concessions over its voting power in the Council of Ministers, the EU's main decision-making body. It wants a provision allowing groups of countries that are just short of a blocking minority to delay a decision for a "reasonable time" – in practice, several months. "We don't want anything more than what has already been agreed," said Lech Kaczynski, the Polish President. "Otherwise, we will have to put off this discussion."
Romano Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, warned that he would not endorse the treaty unless his country secured more seats in the European Parliament. The draft has Italy losing six of its 78 MEPs.
Brown's red lines
Social and labour legislation
Government says: It has won a cast-iron guarantee through a special protocol that the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights will not change UK law.
Critics say: Protocol may only apply to existing rather than new legislation as the European Court of Justice may find a way round it.
Government says: Hard-won (and nearly lost) provision allows UK to pick and choose common policies. Can have cross-border co-operation on crime and terrorism without giving up border controls.
Critics say: An opt-in is not as strong as a veto. Once a member state has opted in, it cannot opt out again and so can't stop the other 26 EU nations imposing policies.
Government says: A new EU High Representative on foreign policy will implement policies decided by national governments, which will retain their veto. No threat to Britain's seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Critics say: Could prove meaningless. The High Representative or "Foreign Minister" will present the EU's position at the UN Security Council when the EU has an agreed policy.
Tax and social security
Government says: Will thwart any move towards common tax policy. Emergency brake can halt moves to harmonise social security.
Critics say: An Aunt Sally. Never any threat to independent tax policy. Social security provision relates only to migrant workers and is not the same as a veto.Reuse content