Gordon Brown faces EU Treaty referendum battle

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The UK prime minister met with his German counterpart Angela Merkel, amid increasing pressure to hold a referendum on the new EU Treaty as trade unions joined forces with Conservatives and Eurosceptics.

Following his meeting with the EU Treaty ‘champion’ Angela Merkel on 22 August, Gordon Brown attempted to fend off renewed calls to hold a referendum on the Reform Treaty – narrowly agreed by the 27 EU leaders earlier in June (EURACTIV 23/06/07 and 28/06/07) – after two British trade unions tabled motions calling for a public vote on the document.

The motions, due to be adopted at the annual Trade Union Congress (TUC) on 10 September, place the new prime minister in an uncomfortable situation because the unions are traditional backers of his Labour Party and are a vital source of political and financial support. Brown will need them onside if he is to call a general election to reinforce his legitimacy. 

Nevertheless, Brown said that he stood by the government’s decision that the Treaty should be ratified by the Parliament rather than by a popular vote, because it is not as far-reaching as the original European Constitution, although the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party disagree. 

“We believe the proper way to discuss this is through detailed discussion in the House of Commons and the House of Lords and I believe parliament will pass the legislation,” said Brown, adding that he did not think the trade unions would go through with their threat. “Let’s see what the TUC do. My own view is that the TUC when it meets will support the government.” 

But the unions are angry over London’s decision to opt out from a legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights, an extensive citizens rights charter, which sets out social rights, including the right to strike, but which the government feared would threaten its flexible labour laws. 

“GMB members are sick and tired of being treated as second-class citizens in Europe. If these rights are good enough for French, German and Spanish workers, then they should be good enough to apply to UK workers too,” said Paul Kenny, general secretary of Britain’s General Union (GMB). 

Angela Merkel did not comment on the issue but one of her close allies, MEP Elmar Brok, said: “The UK got its various opt-outs so what’s the problem? How would it seem to other EU member states if Britain were now to hold a referendum? For me, that would undermine the negotiations on the Treaty and even go as far as to question Britain’s credibility as an EU member.” 

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