The Government is trying to head off a revolt by the trade union movement, which is threatening to join the campaign for a referendum on the proposed European Union treaty.
Ministers are playing down their previous claims that Britain secured an opt-out from the charter of fundamental rights which would form part of the treaty. But the move could undermine the Government's attempts to resist a referendum.
Next week's TUC conference in Brighton will discuss calls for a referendum and ministers are determined to avoid an embarrassing defeat which would fuel demands for a public vote. Several unions have different concerns about the Government's stance. Some oppose an opt-out from the charter because it could entrench workers' rights, including the right to strike. Others fear the new treaty would open the door to privatisation.
Yesterday, the TUC's general council postponed making a decision whether to support a call by the GMB and RMT unions for a referendum. A GMB motion says Labour should keep its 2005 election promise of a referendum on the treaty's forerunner – the EU constitution scuppered by voters in France and the Netherlands two years ago. "The pledge was right at the time of the election and is right now. Europe can only be developed with the whole-hearted support of its citizens," the GMB motion says.
Gordon Brown would prefer conference delegates not to vote on the issue, but TUC leaders want further clarification of the Government's position on the charter. Union sources said there was a degree of "confusion" about it. The dilemma facing ministers is that they have previously talked up an opt-out from the charter to show that Tony Blair secured Britain's "red lines" at an EU summit in June. Any weakening of their language would be seized on by supporters of a referendum. Yesterday, an all-party coalition of MPs formally launched their "I Want A Referendum" campaign at Westminster. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, who served on the EU group which drafted the original constitution, argued: "It is not sufficient to say that, because we are a parliamentary democracy, there shouldn't be occasions when we do have a referendum and ask the people. It is a significant treaty which Parliament cannot amend. I think we owe it as a matter of trust to ask the people."
Mr Brown insists a referendum is not necessary because the EU treaty is a different animal to the constitution and all Britain's "red lines" have been safeguarded. But there is frustration among ministers that supporters of a referendum are making the running. They will argue the case against a public vote when then Bill implementing the treaty comes to Parliament next year. However, they do not want to go into hand-to-hand combat with the pro-referendum lobby because this would, in effect, give it the campaign it wants.
Ministers are playing down claims that up to 120 Labour MPs back a referendum – potentially enough to defeat the Government. But supporters of a public vote claim that Labour whips are putting pressure on possible rebels.
Giuliano Amato, the Italian Interior Minister, who also helped to draft the constitution, said there was a "crucial difference" between the original constitution, which would have been a "new start" for the EU, and the treaty. "If someone in Britain is calling for a referendum, that is not because the text we have in front of us is a constitution, it must be for some other reason and I for one would not support it," he said.
The referendum debate
The case for...
Labour promised a referendum on Europe at the 2005 election and should not renege on its pledge.
Denying a referendum is hardly a sign that Gordon Brown wants to create a "new politics" to engage voters.
The treaty would create a new post of EU foreign policy chief and form an EU diplomatic service. Britain's seat on United Nations Security Council could be handed to the EU.
Policing and criminal justice should come under the remit of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and should remain under British control.
The treaty would be further step towards an EU "superstate" because it would extend majority voting in more areas.
The case against...
Labour's manifesto pledge related to the rejected constitution, and the treaty is not the same.
Previous governments did not hold a referendum on the treaties of Maastricht, Nice or Amsterdam.
Foreign policy is still in the hands of EU member states. The new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy combines two existing posts. There is no threat to UN seat.
Britain has an opt-out. The ECJ already has jurisdiction over asylum, civil justice and migration because Britain has opted in.
A new system would increase Britain's share of the vote in the Council of Ministers from 8.4 per cent to 12.3 per cent.