Leading Article: Let the people have their say on Europe

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR should swallow his doubts and announce that a referendum will be held before Britain is committed to any further stage of European integration. His big speech today in Bournemouth would be a good occasion for this.

The case is clear. The Conservative Party remains profoundly split over Europe: the findings we publish today concerning the balance of views within the parliamentary party underline this dramatically. A referendum would be one way of resolving these divisions. Harold Wilson did the same in 1975. With the Labour Party seriously split over entry, he in effect sidestepped his party and allowed the people to decide through a referendum.

But the case for a referendum is not primarily as a means of resolving intractable party divisions. The European Union is going through a metamorphosis. It is not the same animal that it was in the Seventies. Maastricht was a crucial stage in this process and the intergovernmental conference (IGC) in 1996, due to review Maastricht and discuss institutional reform, will represent a further phase.

Divisions among Conservatives have become so acute in part because the nature of the European project has changed. The popular mandate offered by the 1975 referendum has lost much of its legitimacy. The only way it can be renewed is through a referendum. These are great issues of constitutional principle on which the people should be allowed to decide directly. There should have been a referendum on Maastricht, as there was in Denmark, Ireland and France. The same mistake should not be made in 1996.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the consistently pro-European Liberal Democrats, has already committed his party to a referendum on the outcome of the 1996 IGC. The Labour leader, Tony Blair, is moving in the same direction: commitment to a referendum would prevent the Tories depicting Labour as the poodle of Brussels. Mr Major has so far been hostile. When Eurosceptics pressed in May for a commitment in the party's Euro-election manifesto, he said he was sceptical about referendums, and had not changed his mind since expressing opposition to them in 1993. By September, though, he had moved far enough to promise a referendum in Northern Ireland on any decision about the province's future.

Imagine this scenario. Following the conclusion of the 1996 IGC, the Major government announces a general election and a referendum to be held on the same day. Such a bold move would be likely to clear the air and allow the country to make up its mind about both its future political direction and its attitude towards Europe. The gridlock that has beset the political scene as a result of the Conservative Party's divisions could finally be unblocked.