Leading Article: When to pop that question

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THE TWO issues of John Major's leadership and Britain's relationship to the European Union have become inextricably intertwined. Calls from the right of the Conservative Party for a referendum on Europe are another attempt to smoke out the Prime Minister's real views on Europe: so much the better for Bill Cash and those of like mind if internal conflict on this issue brings more Tory MPs on to their side of the rift. Mr Major for his part fears to make his position clear, to avoid antagonising those same people and so seemingly weakening his own position.

The credibility of those backing the referendum call is not high. Norman Lamont is an embittered ex-chancellor who still feels sore about what the European exchange rate mechanism did to his career. Lord Young of Graffham is an able businessman who became an unelected and unsuccessful minister. Of the present Cabinet, only Michael Howard and John Redwood, known Eurosceptics, have, by being equivocal, seemed to support the idea of a referendum.

It is odd that those most anxious to defend the sovereignty of Parliament against the depredations of Brussels should not trust that same Parliament to exercise its authority on the European issue. It is no less bizarre that they should demand a referendum when there is no suitable issue in sight until the next Maastricht-style intergovernmental conference (IGC) in 1996. There is no sense in Mr Cash's suggestion that soon after next month's European elections the people should be asked: 'Do you want a federal Europe?' First, the word federal means centralisation to some, decentralisation to others. Second, the elections themselves will be a test of opinion. If the Tories have the most anti-Brussels platform, they will doubtless be suitably rewarded.

Paddy Ashdown's suggestion, that public assent to any constitutional changes agreed at the 1996 IGC should be tested in a referendum or general election, makes more sense. With hindsight, the member states should have agreed before negotiating the Maastricht treaty to submit it to referendums across the European Community.

Such a decision would have empowered the negotiators to press for terms they could sell back home. The resulting treaty would almost certainly have been less confused, far more comprehensible and much more openly debated. The sense of European identity would have been enhanced if the referendums had been held on the same day. As it was, the ratification process became very messy. Some countries had referendums at different times. Britain had a protracted and bitter parliamentary debate.

Mr Major could gracefully extricate himself from his corner if he were to propose referendums across the European Union as an accepted feature of the 1996 package - should any constitutional changes result. If they do not, as is quite possible, there would be no need for such a test of popular opinion until the question of sterling being merged into a single currency union arose near the end of the decade.