LONDON (Reuters) - Gordon Brown said on Wednesday he hoped to persuade trade unions to drop their call for a referendum on a new European Union treaty, a move that is threatening to spoil his prime ministerial honeymoon.
Two unions, traditional backers of the ruling Labour Party, tabled motions earlier on Wednesday for a union congress on September 10 demanding a national vote on the reform treaty.
Brown, who is due to address the Trades Union Congress, is not obliged to adopt the motions but they will embarrass him, particularly if similar calls are made at his first Labour Party conference as prime minister starting on September 23.
The unions are a vital source of political and financial support for Labour and their backing will be essential when Brown calls a general election.
Brown said he stood by the government’s decision that the treaty be ratified by parliament, not by the people.
“I’ve been very clear throughout that if we achieve our negotiating objectives then the proper way of considering this is through detailed discussions in parliament,” he told a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He said the treaty safeguarded Britain’s position.
“My own view is that the Trade Union Congress when it meets will support the government in this,” he added.
Since becoming prime minister on June 27, Brown has won praise for his handling of crises from car bomb attacks to floods to foot and mouth disease.
Pressure from the unions over a referendum, on top of the opposition Conservative Party’s relentless campaign for a plebiscite on the treaty, could prove a headache for him.
The GMB, a general union, and the RMT railworkers’ union have tabled the motions, with the RMT’s motion also urging unions to campaign for a “No” vote in a referendum.
A third union said on Wednesday it too wanted a referendum: “We will be supporting both motions,” said a UNISON spokesman.
The GMB and the RMT are angry at the opt-out secured by former prime minister Tony Blair from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, saying it turns British workers into second-class citizens in Europe.
The charter sets out human and social rights, including the right to strike.
“Congress is bitterly disappointed that the Charter of Fundamental Rights will not apply to British workers and their trade unions and calls on the government to show commitment to Europe’s social dimension,” read the GMB motion.
Blair promised Britons a referendum on the original EU constitution but Dutch and French voters rejected it in 2005.
Brown says its successor, agreed by the EU in June, has no “constitutional” elements and need not be put to a vote.
The unions say the treaty, which must be ratified by all 27 EU members, is exactly the same as the constitution.
Brown, finance minister for 10 years until Blair quit, has helped unite a party that was riven by in-fighting between his and Blair’s supporters and give Labour a 10-point lead over the Conservatives.
His strong performance has fuelled speculation he will call an early election later this year or in 2008.
Widespread union support for the motions could force the referendum debate on to the floor at Labour’s annual conference.
additional reporting by Sophie Walker
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