Blair rejects Europe TV debate
LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has rejected an opposition call for him to take part in a televised debate on the new European constitution when it is agreed by EU member states.
Conservative opposition leader Michael Howard made his call Wednesday the day after Blair performed his biggest policy U-turn by announcing a referendum in the UK on the constitution.
But Blair told him: "The debate we will have is here in this House (of Commons) and then when it is agreed in this House we will have the debate in the country."
The PM also confirmed that if there was a "No" vote in the referendum then the treaty could not be ratified. He told lawmakers: "We would then have to sit down with the others (EU states) and work out the way forward."
Blair, who had repeatedly said there was no need for a referendum, signaled to lawmakers Tuesday the vote would not take place until after next year's expected general election -- and after it had been passed in parliament. (Full story)
"Then let the people have the final say. Let the issue be put. Let the battle be joined," he said.
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.
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.