The decision by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to hold a referendum on the European Union constitution has been welcomed in the North, where voters will decide on Britain’s role in Europe.
“Let the issue be put. Let the battle be joined,” declared Mr Blair as he completed a public u-turn on the issue at the House of Commons yesterday.
“The question will be on the treaty. But the implications go far wider. It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country, Britain, wants to be at the centre and heart of European decision-making or not; time to decide whether our destiny lies as a leading partner and ally of Europe or on its margins.”
At the same time Mr Blair declined to set a date for a British referendum, which was widely taken to mean the referendum will not take place before the general election expected next year.
Britain’s semi-detached membership of the European Union, and its refusal to adopt the Euro currency, is experienced in Ireland as a reinforcement of partition. Economic difficulties presented by the differing currencies is one of the largest factors undermining cross-border trade and development.
The president of the European Parliament, Mr Pat Cox, said Mr Blair’s decision triggered a crucial debate for Britain and the EU. While stressing the decision was for the British people to make, Mr Cox said: “People will be obliged to reflect on realities and not just on myths, they will be obliged to look at interests and not just emotional populist argument. If tabloid logic is confronted with real substance, I refuse to be pessimistic about the outcome.”
Unionists generally oppose the European Union as a dilution of British sovereignty, while nationalists have welcomed the opportunity to oppose the increasing centralisation and militarisation of the EU.
Sinn Féin spokesperson on EU affairs Bairbre de Brun welcomed the referendum decision, and expressed her party’s opposition to the EU constitution.
“If the EU has a constitution for the first time ever, this will play a huge role in the shaping of Ireland over the coming decades,” she said.
“The current draft constitution in our view will only serve to speed up the development of the EU as an economic and military superpower. Such a superpower will undermine national sovereignty and increase the democratic deficit, which already exists within the EU.”
Ms de Brun, Sinn Féin’s candidate in the forthcoming EU elections for the Six Counties, said there was a need to simplify and consolidate existing EU treaties.
She warned that the draft constitution was being used to undermine national sovereignty and increase the power of EU institutions.
“For example, the current draft constitution makes fundamental changes in the structures of the EU, gives those structures more powers and gives the EU a single legal personality for the first time.
“The effect of these changes will see a shift in the balance of power yet further away from national parliaments and in doing so will take the single biggest step so far in the creation of an EU superstate.
“Such a fundamental legal and constitutional change in the relationship between member states and the EU must be decided by referendum. Sinn Féin have consistently said that a referendum is required in order that people have their say. To introduce such a fundamental change without a popular mandate would be undemocratic.
“While nationalists in the north would naturally prefer to cast their vote in a referendum called by the Irish government, the fact is that in the past we have had no say at all. I welcome the fact that those living here will be able to cast their vote on this important issue.”