Charles Kennedy: This vote is really about being in or out of Europe

I welcome a referendum because it is time the Prime Minister came out fighting

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In the 1950s, the handful of Liberal MPs who constituted the parliamentary party divided the House over British entry into the Common Market. Labour and the Conservatives were united in opposition; we were in favour. Since then, our party has remained the most consistently pro-European in British politics. I welcome this referendum on the European constitution.

In the 1950s, the handful of Liberal MPs who constituted the parliamentary party divided the House over British entry into the Common Market. Labour and the Conservatives were united in opposition; we were in favour. Since then, our party has remained the most consistently pro-European in British politics. I welcome this referendum on the European constitution.

I welcome it because it is time the Prime Minister came out fighting. He came to power promising to put us at the "heart of Europe". But his record has been lamentable - allowing his neighbour in Number 11 to dictate the pace over entry into the euro and his "friend" in Washington to divide us from European allies over Iraq.

The Liberal Democrats have long argued that we need a constitution to define the powers of the European Union. A written constitution performs two key functions. It establishes the powers of Brussels and the member states, drawing together the provisions of all the treaties from Rome to Nice. It will also update the structures of the EU. Next month, 10 new members will join and the already creaking arrangements for the Union will be further stretched. Without reform, sclerosis will surely follow.

It surprises me that those who are sceptical about Europe are so opposed to a constitution - for this draft also erases the goal of "ever-closer union". It sets out clearly what the EU can do, but also what it can't. And it's important to note that that is integral to my party's pro-European thinking. We don't think the EU is flawless. But we prefer to argue for change from a position of strength on the inside. "Pro-Europe; pro-reform in Europe."

The Prime Minister is about to state publicly that he will hold a referendum. It will be interesting to see what reasons he gives for the about-turn. Clearly, he fears the public might give the "wrong answer". That, I believe, is wholly unacceptable on such a defining matter. It also shows a surprising lack of confidence from a man who protests his beliefs so strongly and - over Iraq - was prepared to act regardless of what much of the nation thought.

Time has been wasted in getting on with making the European case. At last we can make the arguments. And should Tony Blair really be so nervous? Admittedly, losing a referendum and heading straight into an election is not in the Agent's Handbook. But the reality is that no referendum can happen until the text of the Constitution is agreed - and that won't happen before June. Legislation would then be needed in the Queen's Speech in the autumn, including the text of the question. Until the statement in Parliament today we won't know how ratification is likely to proceed. The text of the treaty itself will presumably not be amendable, but if it is taken on the floor of the House - as Maastricht was - it could take months. Assuming the Prime Minister has the election pencilled in for next May, it's probable he will go for a vote early in the next parliament, with a commitment to a referendum in his manifesto.

My party has been consistent in calling for referendums. We wanted one on Maastricht - which actually established the EU - and we were the first party to suggest one for the euro. For the Government to suggest that this is just a "tidying up exercise" was never realistic. It enshrines the Charter of Fundamental Rights, together with the proposed changes to the presidency of the council and the new areas of majority voting for aspects of justice and home affairs. It is right for the British people to have the final say.

This schedule would allow time to make the pro-European case very strongly. It's an argument that certainly can be won. On one side - the Government, the more serious figures in the Conservative party like Ken Clarke, and the Liberal Democrats; on the other - Michael Howard, Bill Cash, IDS and the kind of people who dream of an England that never was and a Great Britain that never can be.

As with so much that Michael Howard has done as leader, he embraced this referendum as a terrific wheeze to get his party out of a hole: another example of his opportunism. But it was Conservative governments which negotiated both the Single European Act and Maastricht - and denied the people "a say". Both he and Michael Ancram opposed the referendum principle. Today, they have no policy other than a vague aspiration to renegotiate the treaty and condemn Britain to some kind of "country member" status.

Michael Howard says he wants a vote now. The politics of that would suit him nicely - effectively paralysing the government in the run-up to May 2005. But a "yes" vote would put him right back in that hole. For his party would surely then have to oppose the Bill in Parliament. So much for "letting the people decide".

It's time for this debate - time for us to decide what we actually want from Europe. I believe, once the argument has been joined, the consensus will be that it's better to be in than out. Because that, regardless of the question, is what this referendum will be all about.

The writer is Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party

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