The right occasion to debate Europe is at an election, not in a referendum

Referendums when they occur in the British system are almost always the result of a cop-out, a short-term political fix
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The Independent Online

Against a background of white noise from the Eurosceptic press, Tony Blair met Valéry Giscard d'Estaing last night to discuss the former French President's proposals for the future of Europe. There is one constant feature of the clamour that has followed the rather sudden discovery by the Tory party and its cheerleaders that the Giscard convention represents a betrayal of everything Britain stands for. And that is that its proposals be put to the people in a referendum. Could anything be fairer than that?

Well, UK-wide referendums when they occur in the British system are almost always the result of a cop-out, a short-term fix, rather than of obeisance to the popular will. Both Labour's decision to hold a referendum on staying in the Common Market in 1975 and the Tory pledge of a referendum on the euro in 1997 were simply a means of holding the two parties together, a piece of party management. Ted Heath certainly didn't feel he had to have a referendum on joining the Common Market in 1972. Neither did Margaret Thatcher when it came to the Single European Act, nor John Major on the Maastricht Treaty.

The worst possible case against referendums is that the issues are "too difficult" for the electorate at large. No such issue exists. Rather it is that recourse to them erodes the importance of the general election, the central, existential moment at the heart of the British constitution that those now clamouring for a referendum claim they want to preserve. Indeed, if anything, referendums chip away at the sovereignty of the very elected parliament that the Eurosceptics purport to defend. Which is one of several reasons why, to their credit, both Kenneth Clarke and Gordon Brown argued strongly and presciently before the 1997 election against their parties' committing themselves to a referendum on the single currency.

The Government is not blameless in all this. It has made its own contribution to the denigration of electoral, representative politics. It fought its two successful elections as defensively as possible by saying the absolute minimum it could get away with about the difficult issues of the day. Just as it failed to admit that its well-justified fixation with "schools'n'hospitals" would mean at some point in the coming parliament higher taxes, so it failed to make the credible case it had already united around, namely for Britain to play its full role in a reformed EU. In 1997, in particular, Labour's craven determination not to turn off a single eurosceptic voter meant that it didn't exploit an ideal opportunity to lead public opinion on Europe in the direction it wanted it to go.

The 2001 election was, admittedly a slight improvement. But given that William Hague's obsession with the EU was evidently bombing, the dumbing-down of the electoral process in 2001 as well as 1997, on Europe as on other subjects, still reflected a dismally wasted opportunity for political education (in the sense of Disraeli's observation that "we must educate our masters"). If you don't sufficiently trust the electorate during elections, you are more likely to be accused of ignoring them between elections.

That does not, however, begin to justify the current synthetic campaign for a referendum on a new constitution for the EU. The Heath, Major and Thatcher examples make more than a cheap party point. For the current process, of which the Giscard convention is only the first, advisory, stage, will be far less momentous, and certainly less integrationist, than any of those were. This isn't to pretend there aren't still some difficult issues for Britain. The sensible idea of having one rather than two people handling the foreign affairs brief in Brussels has thrown up difficult questions about where the writ of the heads-of-government European Council runs out and the European Commission's begins. Which is why Jack Straw winced aloud about the idea of an "EU Foreign Minister" in his Brussels speech yesterday. But overall the Giscard document, unsurprisingly given it comes from the former head of a state every bit as reluctant to bury its nationhood as the UK, envisages something much closer to a Europe de patries than the current hysterical coverage by the Eurosceptic press even begins to allow.

Most of the examples cited by Iain Duncan Smith in his own speech on the subject yesterday fail to scare as they should. A European constitution? What could be more sensible if it draws clear lines between what is better done by Europe and by the nation state - and if it begins to indicate that the European train is, finally, reaching its destination rather than eternally pressing forward to the infamous "ever closer union"? Expansion of qualified majority voting, an essential instrument for advancing the British goal of agricultural and economic reform, isn't applied to tax by Giscard, and the British will certainly resist the many amendments trying to insinuate such an application into the text. A five-year EU president drawn from the council rather than the commission? A way of expanding the role of elected governments and relying on a leaner commission to do better what it does best, enforcing a level economic playing field.

Which may be why there is something a little desperate about some of the coverage from the three newspaper groups, two of them North American-owned, currently working themselves up into a lather over the convention. In targeting the MP Gisela Stuart, the British representative on the convention's inner group, for no better reason than she is German-born, it fails to point out that she has been something of a sceptical bastion in Brussels - so much so that she wrote a paper strongly criticising a Giscard draft that was then rebutted by Sir Stephen Wall, the senior Downing Street mandarin responsible for Europe. Just as the coverage fails to point out the contradiction between the view that any more European co-ordination is wrong and the remark made yesterday by Chris Fox, the Association of Chief Police Officers president and a hero to the right-wing press because he has linked crime with asylum - that the first requirement is for a stronger international asylum policy.

The Government has a clear choice. Jack Straw's speech in Brussels was a start in injecting some sense into the argument. But only a start. Ministers need to do a great deal more. One reason for not taking this press clamour too seriously is that when Tony Blair laid out in Cardiff six months ago, in one of his best European speeches ever, the broad case for what is now coming to pass in the convention, there was barely a squeak of criticism. Maybe Downing Street was a little timid in publicising it. But it was a public document, released to all the press; yet it could have been Khrushchev's secret speech for all the media attention it received. Now Mr Blair and his ministers need to revive that tone and depth of argument, exploiting, as they have too often failed to do in the past, the one signal advantage they have. Which is that they are elected and the opponents really driving this campaign are not.