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Opinion: It's Do or Die for Blair

In a major policy U-turn, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he will call a referendum on the EU constitution, a move that has all the makings of a debacle, not so much for the EU, but for Blair himself.

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The ever-confident Tony Blair

You've got to hand it to Tony Blair: He's got courage. Or is it only courage born out of despair? Blair is currently battling a stiff wind from a population that feels it was deceived and betrayed by his justification for going to war in Iraq. The prime minister just about managed to wriggle out of the Kelly affair. But no one really believes that he told the truth about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction.

Now, a somewhat weakened Tony Blair has announced that he intends to let a euroskeptic British majority have the final say on the rather delicate issue that is the EU constitution -- this, from the same man who has repeatedly been the scourge of the British tabloid press for being far too keen to cosy up to Brussels.

Irish example

A cursory glance in the direction of neighboring Ireland -- where the population is much more EU-friendly than in Britain -- should be enough to warn Blair about the dangers ahead. In Ireland, the first referendum on the Nice Treaty in 2001 failed miserably. Only when the referendum was repeated a year later did the Irish vote yes. But to get that result, the government had to exert itself in order to convey the sense and purpose of the treaty to the people. That's no small task, considering that a document that's been negotiated by diplomats and written by lawyers hardly lends itself to a simple explanation. In the end, the majority of Irish voters put their trust in what their politicians told them. They didn't sit down and study the Nice Treaty to come to an independent conclusion of whether it was good or bad.

But it's exactly at this juncture where Blair could have serious difficulties. Through the Iraq war, he's largely lost the public's trust. Add to this the power of the British tabloid press, which seems to take glee in demonizing the EU through its imaginative horror stories. One also shouldn't forget that the very word "constitution" is something that will take getting used to in Britain, as the country has managed quite nicely up until now without one. It's no wonder that the opinion polls taken so far bode ill: They indicate that more than half of Britons would vote against the EU constitution in the referendum.

Doing battle with euroskeptics

Still, none of this seems to faze Blair. He sees the situation as a challenge: Let the battle with the euroskeptics begin! But who at the moment trusts Blair to emerge from the battlefield victorious? In Brussels and Strasbourg, the alarm bells are already ringing. If the British reject the EU constitution, it doesn't mean that the whole project lands in the bin. The document's authors, anticipating such difficulties, have incorporated legal loopholes, with which the constitution can be saved.

But a no vote from Britain would mean a significant delay and further negotiations, and then a second referendum, and possibly even a third and a fourth, until the constitution is secured. Or, there's the worst case scenario: The constitution would come into effect for all the EU states, except Britain.

Some German representatives in the European Parliament are already pressing ahead with creative suggestions: Why not simply write a clause into the constitution's text that says any state that rejects it will automatically be kicked out of the EU? A sort of provocation under the motto: Tony, it's your own fault is you want to suddenly start playing the game called "grassroots democracy."

Even if the European Constitution can't be broken by a no vote from Britain, for Blair it's still a matter of do or die. If he loses this battle, the power of the tabloid press could soon see him swept out of office -- that is, if he hasn't already lost any hope of winning another election.

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