British PM set to break EU referendum pledge

August 31, 2007

Prime Minister Gordon Brown looks set to break Labour's 2005 election manifesto pledge to hold a referendum before Britain signs up to a new European Union constitution. At an August 22 press conference with German leader Angela Merkel, Brown announced that there was no need to hold a referendum and that the matter would instead be decided by parliament.

Brown is claiming that there is no need for a referendum because the document his government is planning to sign up to is not a constitution, but rather a "reform treaty". However, leading trade unionists believe that the changes are insignificant and in some cases merely verbal. The August 25 Morning Star quoted Bob Crow, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, as saying, "Whatever you call the EU treaty, it contains the same anti-democratic mix that was in the constitution killed off by French and Dutch votes in 2005".

Glasgow South Labour MP Ian Davidson agreed with Crow's assessment: "The changes include items such as the title of the document, taking out things about the flag, anthem and a Europe day, calling the foreign minister something else, but other than that it's essentially the same."

Dave Prentis, leader of UNISON (Britain's largest public service union), told the Star that unions throughout Europe "have fought tooth and nail to protect their own public services against repeated attempts by European leaders and officials to sell out to foreign business". With right-wing governments in power like Merkel's and Nicolas Sarkozy's in France, the backdoor constitution threatened to become "a borderless blueprint for privatisation". According to a spokesperson for the transport and general (T&G) section of the Unite union quoted in the paper, the treaty "would serve to undermine workers' rights rather than strengthen them".

In the August 21 Morning Star, Steve McGiffen, editor of, spelled out some of the parts of the constitution that remain essentially unchanged in the reform treaty:

•The creation of the post of president of the European Council;

•The creation of a new office of "high representative of foreign affairs";

•The introduction of double majority voting at council, meaning that from 2014 only "50 percent of the states representing 55 percent of the population will have to approve a proposal";
•The abolition of the current national veto over a number of policies;

•The assignment of "legal personality" to the EU, meaning that it will have the legal power to sign international treaties and agreements on behalf of all EU member states;

•A clause explicitly giving priority to EU law over national law.

McGiffen also claimed that the treaty would deepen all of the neoliberal economic provisions in the former constitution.

Brown's plan to sign up to the treaty is likely to lead to dissent at the Trades Union Congress conference in September. The Morning Star pointed out that a motion from the RMT calling on the TUC to launch a "No" campaign has already won support from UNISON and the T&G section of Unite.

There has also been some muted dissent from within the ranks of Labour MPs. A letter sent by Labour MP Ian Davidson to Brown on August 26 suggested a number of changes to the proposed treaty that "may remove the need for a referendum". Although the August 29 edition of the Star claimed that Brown has been "rattled" by dissent from Labour MPs over the issue, it seems unlikely that this will lead to any significant pressure being placed on the PM.

Brown's move to break Labour's manifesto commitment to a referendum could lead to the end of the honeymoon period he has been enjoying in the opinion polls since he replaced Tony Blair in June. According to the Morning Star, an ICM poll revealed that "around 82 percent of all voters want the opportunity to vote on the treaty".

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