'No' vote calls French-German axis into question

30th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

30 May 2005, BRUSSELS - France's rejection of the European Union constitution has plunged the bloc into a serious crisis, with the close French-German relationship looking shaky for the first time.

30 May 2005

BRUSSELS - France's rejection of the European Union constitution has plunged the bloc into a serious crisis, with the close French-German relationship looking shaky for the first time.

Vital negotiations on the EU budget could grind to a halt, and the prospect of further enlargement looks more uncertain than ever.

Moreover the twin motors of the EU - France and Germany - are backfiring as a result of domestic political crises.

French foreign minister Michel Barnier warned on Monday that European unification would "suffer a political breakdown" following the resounding thumbs-down given the constitution by French voters.

In addition, he said that the close French-German working relationship, widely seen as crucial to Europe, "risked being lost".

"This is the first time in 50 years that the French and the Germans disagreed in Europe on a fundamental issue," Barnier said.

Germany became the ninth EU member to ratify the EU constitution when its upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, approved it last week.

Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, must now come up with a 'Plan B' ahead of the EU summit on 16-17 June, although EU leaders have always denied that such a plan exists.

In the meantime leaders are being urged to take stock of the result, or "time for reflection" as British prime minister Tony Blair put it.

Juncker, the longest serving political leader in the union and a growing heavyweight at EU summits, said immediately after the French vote that the ratification process must continue regardless.

"We accept the result with a heavy heart," he said. "It is a European debate. The ratification procedure must be pursued in other countries."

The road forward could depend on a second referendum in France, one of the original six founding EU members. Always a powerful voice within the union, France must now face up to the fact that its position within this club has been weakened.

The issue of whether this constitution will really come into effect as planned on 1 November 2006 is now of reduced importance.

While it would be a matter of "extremely bad taste" to ask the French to vote again in a few months, the question still had to be asked, Juncker said.

A precondition for the ratification roadmap is that Blair plays along. He has promised the British a referendum, tentatively set for spring of next year, even though this is not legally necessary.

Blair might well see the French vote as providing an escape, allowing him to call off the referendum, thus avoiding a bruising campaign that opinion polls predict would end in a resounding 'no'.

But this would sound the death knell for Plan B.

The hopeful scenario looks like this: The member states continue with the ratification process, even though the result is at best uncertain in the Netherlands on Wednesday and in the Czech Republic and Poland subsequently.

"I think it would be right to act as though the French decision had no influence," Juncker said, although he was in no mood to play down the political risks involved.

Should there be only one or two states, apart from France, which do not ratify the treaty, then amendments could be made to the constitution to make it less unpalatable - as was done when the Danish rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and when the Irish rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001.

The final step would then be to hold fresh referenda in countries that had initially rejected the treaty in the hope of a 'yes' vote. Such a move would signal to dissenting members that EU leaders had heard and considered their concerns.

This campaign would proceed of course on the basis that the rest of Europe had approved the constitution. Juncker expressed the hope that if and when the French came to re-debate the treaty they would listen to the pro-arguments from other nations.

[Copyright DPA with Expatica 2005]

Subject: German news

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