Europe's shattered dream

France's "no" vote may force other nations to cancel their polls, ensuring defeat of the proposed E.U. constitution.

Published May 31, 2005 3:20PM (EDT)

Britain and other members of "new Europe" are planning to challenge Jacques Chirac to declare whether the E.U. constitution is dead or alive after the emphatic French "no" in Sunday's referendum. Amid surprise that Paris and Berlin appear determined to press ahead with the ratification process after a 55 percent no vote, Chirac will be asked in private whether France will be consulted again in a second poll -- the only way of reviving the constitution.

A negative response from the French president will pave the way for Britain, the Czech Republic and Poland -- which are all facing tough referendums -- to cancel their polls on the grounds that the constitution is dead. An equivocal answer from Chirac, who Tuesday appointed a new prime minister as an attempt to shore up his presidency, will prompt awkward questions as leaders ask how they can be expected to campaign in favor of a document that may never come into force.

"We will want to know if he believes the French people have spoken or whispered," one E.U. diplomat said. "It is a legitimate question to ask the French what happens next. They have created this problem, so what are they going to do about it?"

Tony Blair, who Monday called for a period of reflection, is refusing to cancel the British referendum for the moment, out of respect for the Netherlands, which goes to the polls Wednesday. Opinion polls suggest that Dutch voters will also reject the treaty.

A double no from two founding members of the E.U. in the space of three days would deal such a blow to the constitution that all sides might agree it is dead. This would clear the way for Jack Straw to announce the cancellation of the British referendum when he addresses M.P.'s next week. If the picture is less clear, it is understood that the prime minister and other leaders facing difficult referendum campaigns will make their move in private at the European summit in Brussels, Belgium, on June 16-17.

They will stop short of calling on Chirac to deliver the last rites to the constitution. But diplomats believe he will find it difficult to reach any other conclusion when he is asked whether France will be given another chance to vote.

Sir Stephen Wall, the prime minister's former European advisor, said it was all but impossible now to hold a British referendum.

"You can imagine Tony Blair saying to the British people, 'The French have voted no, but please vote yes, but by the way if we vote yes, the French will have to have another referendum and before they have that, they are likely to make some changes, and by the way, the changes they will want are the very ones we resisted first time 'round.' I just don't see that."

Ken Clarke, the former chancellor whose Tory leadership ambitions have been improved by the result, said: "The British public would think that their political elite were completely crazy if we held a referendum."

Chirac, in a desperate attempt to ensure that he does not turn into a lame duck before the next presidential election in 2007, Tuesday sacked his unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and appointed as his replacement Dominique de Villepin, the interior minister who shot to prominence as foreign minister during the Iraq war. Although he is a Chirac loyalist, appointing an aristocrat who has never been elected may send the wrong signal after voters delivered such a thumbs down to the political elite.

Against this background, Blair Monday chose his words carefully when he broke off from a Tuscan holiday to respond to the French result. Refusing to cancel the British referendum, he said: "If there is a constitutional treaty to vote upon, we will have a vote in Britain before ratifying it." He added: "What emerges so strongly ... is this deep, profound underlying anxiety that people in Europe have about how the economy of Europe ... faces up to the challenges of the modern world."

The Foreign Office was more bullish in private about the death of the treaty, saying there was no chance of Britain going ahead.

By Nicholas Watt et al.

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