Trust issue as polls says Britons want EU vote

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LONDON, Oct 18 (Reuters) Polls show Britons would like a referendum on a new European Union treaty despite Prime Minister Gordon Brown's refusal to hold one, but the issue is not the first thing on voters' minds.

Brown will today attend his first EU summit where he and fellow European leaders hope to finalise the charter to reform the bloc's institutions.

But far from the polemic that surrounded the 1992 Maastricht Treaty laying the path for a single currency and the fuss two years ago over the original but rejected constitution, almost the only people making noise now are the politicians.

''A lot of people are simply unaware of the issue. Europe is very low down people's list of priorities,'' pollster Peter Kellner told Reuters.

''It is the classic default position for Britons for the past 30-odd years to be pretty sceptical. But when they start paying attention the picture switches. In general when people have to decide what matters to them, Europe doesn't grate,'' he added.

An FT/Harris poll in the Financial Times published today showed that 75 per cent of Britons wanted a referendum on any new treaty to reform EU institutions.

Another, by Kellner's YouGov organisation, put the figure at 69 per cent.

The opposition Conservative Party, which tore itself apart over the EU when it was in government in the 1990s, also called for a referendum in its habitual baiting of Brown's equally internally divided Labour Party.

But Brown, despite a pledge in the last Labour election manifesto to hold a referendum on any new EU constitution, says no such vote is needed because the treaty is not a constitution.

He also maintains that Britain's key demands -- its so-called ''red line'' opt outs on areas such as taxation and foreign policy -- are safeguarded.

It is a claim dismissed by Brown's critics who say the prime minister, already seen as vacillating after backing away from a snap election his own camp had touted as a likelihood, simply fears losing such a vote.

''Brown's problem is not Europe per se, but the charge that he has ratted on a pledge and you can't trust him,'' said Kellner.

The tabloid Sun newspaper, famed for its strident anti-EU campaigns last month devoted several pages to its call for a referendum, but was noticeably quiet on the issue today.

For the Financial Times the issue is a diversion. What is really at stake, it said in an editorial today, is Britain's international standing.

''What this fabricated controversy highlights is that Britain cannot put off for ever an honest, open debate about its place in Europe,'' it said.

REUTERS SKB PM1730

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