EU stares into abyss of French 'no' vote

26th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

BRUSSELS, May 26 (AFP) - EU leaders seem increasingly resigned to a devastating French rejection of their long-cherished constitution - and while insisting there is "no plan B" have begun openly pondering how to salvage something from the wreckage.

BRUSSELS, May 26 (AFP) - EU leaders seem increasingly resigned to a devastating French rejection of their long-cherished constitution - and while insisting there is "no plan B" have begun openly pondering how to salvage something from the wreckage.  

But as the expanding bloc stares into a democratic abyss ahead of Sunday's referendum, almost all options look bleak.  

"A French 'no' would be a catastrophe," said Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who holds the European Union's rotating presidency, adding that the half-century old bloc would be set back 20 years.  

For weeks most EU leaders have insisted that the French will come to their senses and back the constitution, designed to prevent decision-making gridlock after the bloc's expansion from 15 to 25 members, with more waiting in line.  

This positive spin has been accompanied by the mantra of "no plan B." But with the latest poll showing the "no" camp's lead increasing further, they have found it increasingly difficult to maintain the optimistic front.  

The sense of political turmoil in Europe has been exacerbated by the turn of events in fellow EU heavyweight state Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is set to call early elections after a crushing state ballot defeat.  

And the first cracks in the upbeat EU front appeared this week when Juncker suggested that France could vote again at the end of the two-year ratification process - which started when the constitution was signed last October.  

"The countries which will have said 'no' will have to ask themselves the question again," the Luxembourg leader told Belgium's daily Le Soir. "And if we don't manage to find the right answer, the treaty will not enter into force."  

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Tuesday ruled out a new poll if his countrymen vote no. "I do not believe that the idea of a new referendum is an idea that France can accept," he told BBC television.  

But many expect Raffarin to be a victim whichever way the French vote -- and some speculate that there is one winner who could have the charisma to persuade the French to vote again: political megastar Nicolas Sarkozy.  

"I think Sarkozy could come out as someone even stronger than he already is," said Marco Incerti of the Centre for European Policy Studies. "He could try to convince the French people to have a rethink about this, to vote again."  

On a day-to-day basis a French "no" would not change things overnight: the new constitution is in any case not planned to come into force until 2009, and the bloc would continue to function with its current rule-book, set out in the 2000 Nice Treaty.  

There is also much talk in Brussels of implementing some elements of the constitution in any case, such as the creation of a full EU foreign minister, widely expected to be foreign policy chief Javier Solana.  

Under EU rules, ratification is due to continue until October 2006 - two years after it was signed amid much fanfare in Rome. If after that, one or more countries have failed to ratify, EU leaders will meet to decide how to proceed.  

But in reality most people expect a regular EU summit next month - already promising a bruising clash over long-term budget plans -- to have to make some sort of decision about what to do next.  

Charles Grant of the London-based Centre for the European Reform suggests that they may announce a "pause for reflection" before convening a new intergovernmental conference (IGC) to produce a radically cut down new treaty.  

But he conceded that, even in the best of scenarios, the EU could be facing "a period of confusion, uncertainty and recrimination."  

Ever optimistic, the European Commission suggested Thursday that all this conjecture may not be necessary - drawing succour from the stunning football win by Liverpool in the European Champions League this week.  

"There are some who feel it could be a Liverpool vote. It's going to be 3-0 till half time, then they will manage to get the upper hand and win on the day," said a spokeswoman.

 

© AFP

Subject: French News

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