With a referendum ahead, Blair must start saying Yes

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The Yes campaign for the European referendum starts ... not yet. For a day comparable to 17 September 1787, when the final text of the US constitution was approved in Philadelphia, Friday in Brussels was a flat affair. The American drafters were conscious that they were actors on the stage of history; the European leaders who agreed the wording of the Constitution of the European Union seemed to be looking no further than their next news conference.

The Yes campaign for the European referendum starts ... not yet. For a day comparable to 17 September 1787, when the final text of the US constitution was approved in Philadelphia, Friday in Brussels was a flat affair. The American drafters were conscious that they were actors on the stage of history; the European leaders who agreed the wording of the Constitution of the European Union seemed to be looking no further than their next news conference.

To be fair, the EU constitution is not the foundation of a new nation, but then it is more than a mere tidying-up exercise, as it was initially described by British ministers. Now Tony Blair has to sell it. His diffident performance in answer to journalists' questions after the deal suggests that he has not yet fully engaged with the urgency of winning the referendum he has promised. He may still be half hoping that the constitution will be thrown out by one of the other seven countries holding referendums - because it falls if a single country fails to ratify it. He cannot afford such insouciance. Now that we know what we are voting on, the referendum campaign effectively started this weekend.

It is important to recognise that the No campaign is not as strong as it looks. The Sun and the Daily Mail denounced Friday's deal as a sell-out of British sovereignty, but that charge was undercut by the promise of a referendum. It is striking that the anti-Europeans cannot frighten people with tangible threats posed by the constitution. John Cryer, the putative leader of the Labour No campaign, is reduced to: "It contains all sorts of nasties."

Every time the antis found something that pro-Europeans found hard to defend, Blair got it taken out. It was defensive politics, but necessary. The final example was the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The real objection to it is that it pointlessly duplicates much of the European Convention on Human Rights, a separate treaty that predates the EU. But the issue was fixed by requiring the EU court to interpret it with "due regard" to national law.

And the Yes campaign is stronger than it looks. Despite the 16 per cent of the vote won by the UK Independence Party in this month's elections, those who want Britain to pull out of the EU altogether are still in a minority. A No vote may not require Britain to leave the EU, but it would push us away from the centre of influence and towards the exit door. If every country except Britain accepted the new rulebook, it would mean that we were not a full member of the club.

As an argument for a Yes vote, this is essentially negative. It may be the best that can be done with such a long and uninspiring document. Europe's leaders could have learned a great deal from the American Constitutional Convention, which appointed a "Committee of Style" to polish its rough draft - and produced a constitution a mere six pages long. But it is too late for such regrets. What matters now is that the pro-European majority unites behind a new rulebook for a Europe of 25 countries that will make it work more efficiently, tackle fraud and make it easier to work together when countries want to do so. It is a case that can and must be won.

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