Muddled message delivered by 'pro-Europe' premier

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One of those things that Tony Blair has always meant to do, but somehow never found the time, was to explain to the British people exactly what are the benefits of being a member of the European club.

One of those things that Tony Blair has always meant to do, but somehow never found the time, was to explain to the British people exactly what are the benefits of being a member of the European club.

Although he professes to be the most pro-European Prime Minister since Edward Heath, he has been a disappointment to fellow enthusiasts for the European project. After seven years in power, he has got us no nearer than the wretched John Major ever did to joining the European single currency.

That he has come back from Brussels having struck a reasonably good deal over the proposed European constitution does not mean that we will ever sign up to it, either. Nobody believes that if a referendum were held in the present climate the public would vote for it - which is exactly why the leader of the UK Independence Party, Roger Knapman, challenged Mr Blair to hold the referendum at once and to resign if he loses.

Nonetheless, there are straws in the wind that may help Mr Blair get the result he wants from a referendum. One, perversely, is the sudden success of the UKIP in securing 12 seats in the European Parliament.

Their rise will muddle the message coming out of the "no" camp in a referendum. Michael Howard wants to fight a campaign that says "yes" to membership of a free trade association with the Continent, but "no" to the encroachment of Brussels into political matters that ought to be left to elected national parliaments. A crucial part of this message is that voting "no" to the EU constitution is emphatically not a step towards outright withdrawal from the EU.

But there can only be two sides in a referendum campaign. People are not invited to vote different shades of "no". On the same side as Michael Howard will be the attention-grabbing Robert Kilroy-Silk and the mega-rich Yorkshire businessman Paul Sykes, whose uncompromising message is to get out altogether.

Into the same bed will climb other strange fellows from the left of the Labour Party. While Howard et al will attack Brussels for wanting to impose too much regulation on business, their left-wing cohabitees will be calling for a rejection of the constitution for precisely the opposite reason, that they do not want European competition laws forced on them, while they would like the trade union privileges which the new constitution does not grant them.

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that the putative organiser of the "no" campaign, Sir Brian Williamson, indicated it is planning a campaign in which showbiz personalities will play a more prominent role than politicians. It will be interesting to see how semi-retired comedians and rock stars deal with detailed questions about, say, qualified majority voting or the principle of subsidiarity.

On the other side will be most of the Labour Party, the entire Liberal Democrat party, and a voter-friendly segment of the Conservative Party headed by Kenneth Clarke and Lord Heseltine, and some prominent representatives of business interests, all singing approximately the same tune.

The other constant refrain of pro-Europeans is that people distrust the EU because all they ever hear is the wailing of Eurosceptics and their allies in the media. The case for membership is seldom heard.

This is what lies behind yesterday's optimistic forecast from the Vice-President of the Commission, Neil Kinnock, that a referendum can deliver a "yes" vote. "I think the strong probability is that familiarity and comprehension does assist with removing fears and getting rid of the legends and building support for engagement in the EU," he told the Today programme.

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