Blair’s European Dilemma

Tony Blair has achieved a remarkable third successive electoral victory. But his sharply reduced majority in the House of Commons, and his damaged personal reputation, mean that his political position is seriously weakened. As a result, he will be poorly placed to handle the challenges ahead, the most intractable of which will be the European Union’s new Constitution.

The Constitution, adopted by the 25 member states last year, is not, in itself, a big deal. It introduces some significant improvements for majority voting in the Council of Ministers. It gives some more powers to the European Parliament. It includes a Charter of Fundamental Rights. It might help harmonize the foreign policies of the member states. But it is no revolutionary document.

According to normal British constitutional practice, the government would be expected to ratify this Constitution by a vote in the House of Commons; and, until the recent general election, the government’s huge majority should have been more than sufficient. But Blair, beset by controversy over the unpopular and possibly illegal war in Iraq, thought he could avoid trouble at Westminster by postponing ratification until 2006 (that is, a comfortably long time in the future), and proposing that it be carried out by popular referendum.

Unfortunately, as things stand, this is a referendum that Blair will not win, because all polls show a large and solid majority against the European Constitution.