We should all worry about the Euro-constitution
Catherine Meyer, Daily Telegraph 2003-10-17
Lady Meyer is co-chairman of Vote 2004, the cross-party campaign for a referendum on the constitution

It is no surprise that the Queen is concerned about the new European constitution, as The Telegraph revealed yesterday. We all should be.

The Queen is said to be concerned by provisions in the constitution that would make EU law supreme over national law. She is said to be worried that this would make the EU constitution, not Parliament (of which she is a pillar), the ultimate source of authority.

It is not only the Queen who is deeply worried about the new constitution. Sir Stephen Wall, head of the Cabinet Office Secretariat and one of the Prime Minister's leading advisers, has told Tony Blair that he must do a U-turn on his decision not to hold a referendum on the constitution. Sir Stephen believes it must have the consent of the people and told Mr Blair that his current stance on the issue was "untenable".

Even Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French prime minister, has warned the Prime Minister that he could not be a "true European" without holding a vote.

But it isn't only heads of state and government who should be behind a referendum. The European constitution will affect everyone in the country in the minutiae of our daily lives. It would affect the legal system and the police. It would give the EU powers over the sentences criminals receive. It would give the EU the ability to co-ordinate the economic and social policies of member states. Under the constitution, we would give up our right to veto EU asylum policies under one great over-arching EU "common asylum policy".

Opponents of a referendum say that calls for a referendum are premature because long and arduous negotiations lie ahead before a constitution is finally agreed. The Government assures us that it will hold fast to essential British interests. Judge us, they say, on the outcome, not on the proposals made by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the head of the constitutional convention. And Mr Blair has put off calls for a referendum by saying: "Lots of countries have traditions of holding referendums on these issues - but we do not."

These excuses will not wash. Just because we haven't had exactly this sort of referendum before doesn't mean we shouldn't have one now on such a crucial issue. And, whatever the status of the Giscard d'Estaing proposals, they are still the basis for the negotiations and will be the core of the new constitution. During those negotiations, some EU countries will want to centralise; others will want to apply the brakes. The result, inevitably, will be a compromise - and Britain will be part of it. As in previous negotiations over the past 30 years, we will never be able to get everything we want.

So, it is no argument to say that we do not know the outcome of the negotiations on Giscard's draft. We do not have to. However the negotiations come out, the accumulation of changes since 1975, enshrined in the new constitution, will mark a massive qualitative advance over the past 28 years.

The plain truth is that the EU of 2003 is already profoundly different from the Common Market of 1975. If it was right to hold a referendum on Britain's membership in 1975, it must logically be right to hold one on the new constitution, which will fix our national destiny for decades to come.

This is not an argument against the constitution, or EU membership. It is a position to which Europhiles and Euro-sceptics alike can rally. A referendum, properly framed and debated, should subsume the Government's promise to hold one on the euro. It would also put an end to the endless debate about Britain's role in the European Union.

Some argue that a referendum would undermine our tradition of parliamentary democracy. But there are moments in our history when the matter in hand is of such great importance that it is right to consult the people directly. Certainly, several European countries have reached the same conclusion.

Others say that the constitution is too complicated for a referendum; that the voters will not understand. This is about as arrogant, patronising and undemocratic as you can get. The draft constitution opens with the ringing words - "Reflecting the will of the citizen". How else can you reflect the citizens' will if the citizens are not consulted?

People are not stupid. They understand the issues all too well when these are explained in plain language. For too long the affairs of Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg and Frankfurt have been surrounded by impenetrable walls of bureaucracy, jargon and secrecy. No wonder the EU arouses so much apathy, even hostility, among ordinary Europeans. Enormous damage is being done at the moment to the standing of the EU when the Commission refuses to make public its investigations into the corrupt wastage of taxpayers' money.

So a referendum would serve several purposes: it would bring the fresh air of democracy into the corridors and meeting rooms of the union. It would force the Government to start explaining to us exactly what is at stake in these negotiations. And it would reconnect ordinary people to the EU.

It was recently reported that the Prime Minister would seek to reassert his authority and popularity by creating an agency to co-ordinate the digging up of our roads. I am sure that we would all be much happier if there were fewer road works. But this initiative is hardly worthy of a Prime Minister who repeatedly claims that his Government and party are at their best when they are at their boldest.

So, let us see if Mr Blair can walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. Let the people have their say. Let the people have their referendum - our polls show that more than 80 per cent of Britons want one.

This would be a bold reassertion of the best democratic traditions of Britain and of Europe. Our country deserves nothing less as we stand on the threshold of an irreversible departure from 1,000 years of history.