Andrew Grice: Referendum or not, opponents of the EU project will never be satisfied

Brown has a unique chance to form a triumvirate with Sarkozy and Merkel and drive the EU engine
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The Independent Online

EU leaders toasted their agreement on a new treaty with champagne early yesterday morning. But Gordon Brown didn't touch a drop. He says the treaty is a good thing, but didn't want to be caught on camera celebrating it.

But will Mr Brown at least make the case for Europe now the treaty has been approved at the Lisbon summit? He said yesterday that he wants the debate to begin – not before time.

So far, the "debate" in Britain over the treaty has been almost completely one-sided. The Tory Opposition and a small but vocal band of Labour MPs have made all the running by calling for a referendum, their case taken up gleefully by our Eurosceptic-dominated newspapers. There has been virtually no explanation by ministers of why the treaty is needed. No wonder that seven out of 10 British people want a referendum. The Eurosceptic papers insist they merely "reflect" public opinion. For the past few months they have been creating it with a daily diet of stories about the treaty, some misleading.

Although pro-European ministers wanted to be let off the leash, Mr Brown ordered the fightback should not start until after the treaty had been approved. He hasn't said much about Europe since becoming Prime Minister in June. Perhaps he judged that he had already upset the sceptic press enough by denying them the referendum they demand on the treaty.

Some Europhiles hope Mr Brown will now come out fighting for the European cause. I suspect they will be disappointed. Mr Brown once promised a national debate – roadshows included – about the single currency. It never happened.

The "debate" he referred to in Lisbon is the battle that will now take place in Parliament. No doubt the Westminster village will get excited. But to have any impact on the public, the pro-European campaign now promised will need the heavyweight involvement of Mr Brown himself, not just a few speeches from junior ministers on a wet night in Dudley.

Europhiles tell me Mr Brown will do it. I am not so sure. Although there won't be an election before 2009, Mr Brown needs all the media support he can get after losing credibility over his botched non-election. Right-wing newspapers who were sniffy about David Cameron are giving him a second look and warning Mr Brown that their early enthusiasm for him has cooled. So I doubt he will declare war on Eurosceptics, as he might drive these papers into Mr Cameron's waiting arms.

Although Tony Blair worked hard to keep Britain at the top EU table without joining the euro, he never sold the EU to the public.

I don't expect things will change much under Mr Brown. Yet it would be a good time for him to try to turn the anti-European tide. He inherited a good hand on Europe, which is genuinely moving Britain's way on economic reform. The stroppy old guard of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder have gone, creating a unique opportunity for Mr Brown to form a powerful triumvirate with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel to drive the EU engine. The European Commission, under Jose Manuel Barroso, is no longer the federalist body caricatured by most of the British press. Mr Barroso broadly shares Mr Brown's vision of Europe in the world.

But it's not clear Mr Brown will seize the opening, even though an EU with Britain fully rather than half-in would have more clout on the world stage, and be more able to deal with problems like global poverty and climate change.

The Prime Minister's immediate priority is to get the treaty ratified in Parliament. It will be a bruising battle but the Commons or Lords are unlikely to vote for a referendum. Reports that up to 120 Labour MPs will support one are wide of the mark. A more realistic figure is 20.

At first glance, a referendum looks right as Labour promised one on the original EU constitution scuppered two years ago. Mr Blair was bounced into this by Jack Straw, with Mr Brown's support. Mr Blair must feel a tinge of schadenfreude now Mr Brown is under pressure on the issue.

But the argument that the treaty approved in Lisbon warrants a referendum is weak. Opponents bang on about Britain giving up the veto in 60 areas. But they never give examples. Why? Because 13 of the areas will not apply in Britain and many of the others are minor, technical or procedural matters. If there were a referendum, the people of Britain would hardly get excited about majority voting on transport subsidies in the former East Germany.

The Tories work themselves up into a lather and yet they won't promise to renegotiate the treaty if they win the next election. If it were such a threat to British sovereignty, surely they would pledge to do so?

Some Europhiles believe a referendum could be won if it were turned into a question of whether Britain should be in or out of Europe. True, the British public don't want to pull out. But there would hardly be a balanced debate in our Eurosceptic-dominated press. It would be a big gamble.

Nor would such a referendum "settle the issue for a generation" as pro-European backers of a public vote claim. The Eurosceptics are never satisfied. They move the goalposts, and never give up. Even if they lost a referendum, they would live to fight another day.