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Blair calls Europe vote

Blair: 'No reverse gear'
Blair had declared firmly there was no need for a referendum.

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Tony Blair
Great Britain

LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has confirmed speculation about a policy U-turn, announcing a referendum on the European Union's constitution.

Blair, who had repeatedly said there was no need for such a vote and declared recently he had "no reverse gear," signaled to lawmakers Tuesday it would not take place until after next year's expected general election.

"Let the issue be put. Let the battle be joined ... Let the people have the final say," Blair told the House of Commons on Tuesday.

"The electorate should be asked for their opinion when all our questions have been answered, when all the details are known, when the legislation has been finally tempered and scrutinised ... and when parliament has debated and decided."

The referendum will be the first big test of UK public opinion on Europe since Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson's government asked voters whether they wanted to stay in the then Common Market in 1975.

The new constitution, which EU leaders hope to sign on June 17, aims to streamline decision making in the growing EU. The bloc will expand from 15 to 25 members on May 1.

Negotiations floundered last year over relative voting rights but the EU rediscovered a sense of unity after the Madrid train bombings last month and agreed to come to terms by the leaders' next summit, June 17-18.

Among the main proposals are a permanent EU president, an EU foreign minister with joint foreign policy, an EU 'Mr Euro,' tax harmonization and a legally binding charter of rights. There would be more joint EU policy with fewer national vetoes allowed. (What's at stake?)

Answering critics who fear a loss of British sovereignty -- current polls have shown more than half of Britons opposing the constitution -- Blair said his country would retain "national veto" over defense and other key issues.

He added that the constitution would not get his support unless it "embodies the essential British traditions."

"The treaty will not alter the fundamental aspects of the nation state," he said. "It is an historic event, one this British government has championed."

"It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country wants to be at the center 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," Blair said.

'Risky procedure'

A number of EU states plan to hold public votes if, as planned, a constitution is signed and sealed at the heads of government summit in June. Blair's decision will now increase pressure on other major EU countries to follow suit.

The Europe debate plagued Blair's two immediate predecessors -- John Major and Margaret Thatcher -- and brought a bitter schism in the Conservatives, in power for 18 years before Blair's 1997 win.

UK analysts said Blair believed the promise of a vote -- a "No" in any EU state would hold up or possibly even scupper the charter --- would take the steam out of the issue.

A YouGov poll in the top-selling Sun tabloid on Monday showed 53 percent of Britons would vote "No" to a constitution and that only 16 percent would vote "Yes."

A referendum was first mooted as a possibility in the Rupert Murdoch-owned, and anti-EU, Sun. But when this did not mollify his critics in the press and parliament, analysts said, Blair decided to go the whole hog and call a referendum.

But analysts said the decision to call a referendum could backfire. "It's a risky procedure Blair is taking, but he's been backed into a corner," Emil Kirchner, professor of European studies at Essex University, told Reuters.

"If he loses, it would be his defining moment. I think he would leave the scene."

Michael Howard, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said he welcomed Blair's "big U-turn" to hold a referendum.

He told the Commons on Tuesday: "Six months ago you stood before your party conference and told them with all the lip-quivering intensity for which you've become famous: 'I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear.'

"Today you could hear the gears grinding as you came before us lip quivering once again to read all those words which you had pronounced so emphatically for so long. Who will ever trust you again?"

He recalled Blair saying before that a referendum would be a "'gross and irresponsible betrayal"' of the national interest last July and asked when the change of heart had taken place.

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