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Leading article: Give us a referendum

It was billed as the “five-shirt summit” last year because it was supposed to last so long, but it collapsed ignominiously leaving the proposed European Union constitution in tatters. It confirmed that Tony Blair was a lucky politician. Gone, it seemed, was the prospect of damaging political battles over Europe ahead of the general election. When the Hutton report and the tuition fees vote followed soon afterwards, Mr Blair basked in his good fortune. Now the constitution is back. The Madrid massacre, misguidedly interpreted by some in Europe as a reason for speeding the process of economic and political integration, was a factor. The bombings also smoothed the way for a deal by propelling Spain’s Socialist party into power. The objections by Spain and Poland over new EU voting rights have melted away. And now that last week’s summit has given the constitution a fresh impetus, a deal by June 17 is on the cards. Indeed, after December’s failure, the EU probably cannot afford another collapse.

Mr Blair’s response to this potentially huge political headache has been interesting. The relief at being let off the hook in December has given way to a curious determination to get the constitution agreed as soon as possible. Not only that, he intends to come out fighting his critics, accusing them of peddling Eurosceptic myths. “I think it is important first of all to debate according to reality, not according to myth,” he said. “Neither, incidentally, is anyone pushing us to give up British policy on tax, or foreign policy, or defence, or the criminal justice system. The idea that people round the table, many of whom, the new members, have fought for years to achieve nationhood, want to give it all away is a bit dumb.”

So there you have it: those who oppose the constitution are dumb. It is dumb, the prime minister says, to trouble ourselves over it. But is it dumb to worry about the loss of sovereignty when it comes to our criminal justice system, and the right to have national laws, investigative procedures and prosecution standards? Even before the hard talking has started, Britain has made concessions on the treatment of arrest suspects, the common European arrest warrant. There will be many more. Is it dumb to worry about what the constitution will imply for employment and social policy and the loss of what remains of Britain’s labour market flexibility after seven years of Labour? The constitution talks ominously of co-ordinating EU employment policies and enshrining the right to industrial action for all workers, a prospect that has filled business with alarm.

Is it dumb to worry about tax harmonisation, supposedly one of Britain’s “red lines” in the constitution? The aim of harmonising indirect taxes is set out clearly, while national control over tax decisions is already being lost alarmingly, thanks to judgments by the European Court of Justice. Is it dumb to worry about the further loss of control over asylum and immigration policy, or the role of the new EU foreign minister? Ministers have stopped talking about the constitution as “a tidying-up exercise”. They still imply, however, that it involves little more than bringing existing treaties under the same roof, together with a necessary streamlining of procedures to cope with an EU of 25 members. That is not how it is seen in Europe. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president who headed the constitutional convention, compared his role with the founding fathers of the United States. Pat Cox, president of the European parliament, says it is “the grand project of new Europe”.

This newspaper has called for a referendum on the constitution; we repeat that call today. Mr Blair will not concede such a vote, of course, because he knows he would lose it. An ICM poll today shows an opposition of 3-1 to the constitution. The prime minister’s message to voters is “trust me”. After seven years, and with the question of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction hanging over him, Mr Blair is the last person most voters will want to trust. He needs to reflect harder before trying to ram a constitution through against public opinion and the national interest.