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Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that the question of ratifying the proposed EU constitution, which would transfer limited sovereignty to the massive political organization, would be put directly to the voters through a referendum. Blair warned that a rejection of the referendum would isolate Britain from the Continent. According to polls, however, his argument has not made much of an impact:
A majority of Britons would vote "no" in a referendum on a European Union constitution, seen as a political gamble for pro-European Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to polls published Sunday. An ICM poll for The Sunday Telegraph newspaper found that the proposed EU constitution would be rejected by 68 percent of voters. Only 21 percent would back the treaty, it said. ...
A second ICM poll, for the News of the World newspaper, reported that 55 percent of respondents would vote "no" on the constitution, while 25 percent would say "yes." The News of the World poll also found that 51 percent of people wanted to remain in the EU, while 36 percent would vote to quit the European body.
From a quick reading of these numbers, it appears that Blair hasn't even captured the Labor vote, let alone made inroads into opposition parties. The second poll indicates that only the barest majority desires staying in an EU under current, less centralized conditions, when it resembles nothing much more than a trade federation. Significantly more people want to leave the EU altogether (36%) than to ratify the proposed constitution (21%).
These numbers indicate that Blair has either not done a very good job of communicating the benefits of tying Britain to Europe -- a Europe dominated by the Franco-German marriage -- or has seriously miscalculated British desire for integration, or a little of both. At least in foreign policy, Britain has always operated from a distance, historically selecting the second-largest power in Europe as an ally to keep the largest power from running amuck. With Europe integrating, that policy no longer applies, but the British may still see themselves as very much a separate entity from the continentals.
Economically, too, Britain has moved in a completely different direction than that of the French and Germans who comprise the heart of the EU. The two central countries both embraced socialism and have paid a steep price for their choices. France, for one, has yet to meet the debt obligations of the EU under its current rules, let alone under a new constitution. Britain, on the other hand, steered away from centralized economies and nationalized industry under Lady Thatcher's government, and even a Labourite like Blair has been loathe to go back to the days of Heath. Faced with a European yoke, the British may wonder whether they're being asked to pull the Franco-German economies so that their citizens can continue to enjoy 32-hour work weeks, fat pensions, and long summer vacations, as well as the double-digit unemployment their economies are marching towards.
Blair has scheduled the referendum after the next general elections, which at first appears to be a manner of dodging the political fallout from a rejection, but does have the virtue of separating it from partisan politics. That means he has about 15 months in which to turn the British public 180 degrees. If he is successful, Britain will find itself boxed in regarding its economic and foreign policies like it hasn't been since the Armada. If he fails, he loses his job and Labour likely loses Parliament to a re-energized Tory party led by Michael Howard.
Any bets? It looks bleak, but it's hard to pick against Blair.
Addendum: The PR campaign has just begun, of course. The BBC reports that Chris Patten, the former Tory minister who represents Britain at the EU, warns that a rejection of the referendum will push Britain out of the EU altogether, even though a rejection will kill the constitution anyway (it requires unanimous adoption to pass):
Mr Patten told the Observer newspaper that Britain had to make its mind up whether it wants to make a success of Europe or not.
He said: "That's why I think that, if we ever get to this referendum, it's really going to be about whether we want to stay in. What's the point of being inside and endlessly, truculently making trouble? Is that really pursuing the national interest?"
The Beeb also reports that Blair expressed regret to his advisors for approving the referendum at all, which Michael Howard pushed him to do, admitting that the effort has "backfired" on him. We'll see; 15 months is a long way off.
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