French 'no' to treaty may scupper British vote

19th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

LONDON, May 19 (AFP) - Britain hinted Thursday it would have cold feet about moving ahead with a referendum on the European Union (EU) constitution if the French and Dutch reject it in their own plebiscites in the next two weeks.

LONDON, May 19 (AFP) - Britain hinted Thursday it would have cold feet about moving ahead with a referendum on the European Union (EU) constitution if the French and Dutch reject it in their own plebiscites in the next two weeks.  

A rejection of the constitution elsewhere could give the British government an escape hatch before its own eurosceptic voters but would also present it with a thorny challenge when it assumes the rotating EU presidency on July 1.  

"I am admitting candidly I can't anticipate what will be the response... if the French or the Dutch were to vote 'no'," Europe Minister Douglas Alexander said. "As long as there is a treaty to vote on, we intend to have a referendum."  

Alexander told BBC radio: "It would clearly have serious consequences if the French people choose at the end of this month to vote 'no' in their referendum."  

If the French rejected the text, he added, it "would require a response in the first instance from the French government and then would, no doubt, be a matter of discussion with European partners in the European council."   

There was confusion over the British stand after Alexander told parliament on Wednesday that his government would proceed with the referendum no matter what happened, before his boss Foreign Secretary Jack Straw contradicted him.  

A British referendum on a constitution designed to streamline the workings of the enlarged European Union would probably take place early next year.  

The stakes surrounding the constitution are high for Prime Minister Tony Blair, who began serving a third and promised final term as prime minister after his Labour Party won the May 5 general elections, albeit with a slimmer parliamentary majority.  

Blair would leave on a high note if the referendum passes in Britain - where voters are notoriously sceptical about deeper ties with Europe - but he may be under more pressure to step down early if it is rejected.  

However, rejection by other countries may allow Blair to avoid holding any poll at all.  

At the same time, analysts said Blair would be faced with the challenge of keeping Europe afloat after a no vote in any of the 25 EU member states, which must all approve the constitution for it to take effect.  

"If France votes no, Blair will have to find ways of building the European project, stopping Europe grinding to a halt, or possibly stop it descending into chaos," a close Blair ally told the Financial Times earlier this month.  

France holds its referendum on May 29, followed by the Netherlands on June 1. Public opinion appears to be against the treaty in both countries.  

Spain last night became the ninth country to ratify the constitution with an overwhelming vote in favour in its senate for the landmark document.  

Valerie Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who chaired the convention which drafted the constitution, told BBC radio earlier that the constitution could not be renegotiated if French voters rejected it.  

"The British must be satisfied that every red line has not been crossed. If we negotiate again people will think, okay, we can cross some of these red lines," he said.  

Giscard d'Estaing said "public relations strategists working against ratification" wanted to encourage lukewarm supporters of the constitution to vote against it by playing on hopes they could get a better alternative.  

Despite opinion polls suggesting that French voters may vote against the constitution, the former French leader predicted they would narrowly approve it.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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