UK Govt Briefing on European Constitution
Questioned about the Prime Minister's Statement to the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that he was not going to pre-empt it. However, it was important to be clear about the general approach of the Prime Minister and the Government to this matter. If there were to be an agreed Constitution, it would obviously have to respect our red lines. In doing so, neither the Prime Minister nor the Government had anything to fear in debating the reality of the Constitution rather than the myth. As the Prime Minister had said yesterday in the House, he looked forward to taking on that debate.
Asked what the Prime Minister would say about the prospect of a referendum, the PMOS repeated that he had no intention of pre-empting the Prime Minister's Statement. That said, we had recognised the increasing danger of the whole EU Constitution issue turning into a debate about whether or not to have a referendum. The Prime Minister firmly believed that the debate should focus on the substance of the Constitution and our place in Europe. As he had said yesterday, he was in no way afraid or worried about having that debate. On the contrary - he welcomed it.
Asked to explain why the Prime Minister believed that Parliamentary scrutiny should take place before the matter was put to the general public when he had said on June 4 1997, regarding Scottish devolution, that it was important to have the referendum first and go through the Parliamentary process afterwards, the PMOS said that the EU Constitution was a very complex document, as some political commentators, themselves, had noted yesterday. There were a variety of myths and misperceptions about it. It was therefore entirely right for Parliament to be given the opportunity to scrutinise it in detail so that the public would be able to see that and make their own judgements. The interesting thing about yesterday's vox pops was that many of those who had been interviewed had admitted that they didn't know very much about the EU Constitution. Therefore, whereas an issue like devolution had been debated for many years, that was not true of the EU Constitution - which, it was important to remember, had yet to be agreed. Put to him that if Scottish devolution had been a considered a great constitutional change, surely the EU Constitution was as well, the PMOS said that if the Constitution was agreed and it met our red lines, we did not believe that that would represent a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and Europe. Nevertheless, it was important to counter the myths and misconceptions by engaging in a debate, which was precisely what the Prime Minister would be doing in his Statement today. Asked how the Prime Minister and the Government were planning to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding the EU Constitution, the PMOS said that it was important to focus on the substance of the matter in question, not the process. Parliament would perform its scrutinising role and address the issue in detail. No doubt journalists would perform their duty and report on the proceedings. Asked if a three-line Whip would be imposed on the Parliamentary scrutiny process and whether MPs and Peers would be able to make any changes, the PMOS said that these were issues which would be addressed in slower time.
Asked why the Prime Minister was making today's Statement instead of Jack Straw, the PMOS said that the usual discussions had taken place and, on reflection, it had been decided that it was more appropriate for the Prime Minister to lead on this issue and make the Statement. We were perfectly relaxed about that.
Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister had spoken to any European leaders about the change in Government policy, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had spoken to some European leaders at the weekend, but not about this specific decision. Pressed further, the PMOS said that we were in touch with other Governments through the normal channels.
Asked about the publication today of the EU White Paper, the PMOS said that it would cover our general approach to Europe. The initial White Paper, published last September, had set out our red lines.
Asked if the Prime Minister had informed Rupert Murdoch of his decision before telling the Cabinet, the PMOS said that he did not recognise the suggestion. The Prime Minister had not talked to Mr Murdoch recently about this issue. Asked when they had last spoken about it, the PMOS said that we didn't provide details of every single conversation the Prime Minister had. Recently meant recently. Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister had spoken to Irwin Stelzer, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister spoke to Mr Stelzer on a regular basis, just as he spoke to many media figures regularly.
Asked to what extent the Cabinet had been consulted about the EU Constitution, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues about all sorts of issues, including the one in question. Asked if the Prime Minister had shown his Statement to Cabinet Ministers prior to delivering it in the House, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister's Cabinet colleagues would not find today's Statement a surprise. Asked if the Cabinet had ever held a vote on the issue of whether to hold a referendum on the Constitution, the PMOS said that the Cabinet worked by a process of consensus. It had discussed the issue on a regular basis. Asked when Cabinet consensus had been reached on this matter, the PMOS said that the discussion had been ongoing.