France votes ‘nay’ EU dream shattered

N Watt, P Wintour and J Henley

EU statute could be killed if Dutch voters take part in polls expected to provide an even more

crushing defeat.

Britain and other members of “new Europe” are planning to challenge Jacques Chirac to declare whether the EU 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 per cent no vote, President 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 will appoint a new prime minister as he attempts to shore up his presidency, will prompt awkward questions as leaders ask how they can be expected to campaign in favour 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 EU 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 yesterday 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 tomorrow. Opinion polls suggest that Dutch voters will also reject the treaty. A double no from two founding members of the EU in the space of three days would deal such a blow to the constitution that all sides may agree it is dead. This would clear the way for UK foreign secretary Jack Straw to announce the cancellation of the British referendum when he addresses MPs on Monday. 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 on June 16-17. They will stop short of calling on Mr 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 adviser, 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.’’ But Chirac faces a difficult choice for a new prime minister. The two frontrunners, who were summoned to the Elysee palace yesterday, have strengths and weaknesses.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who started his preparations for the presidential election by resigning last year as finance minister to head Chirac’s UMP party, is France’s most popular politician. But he is a bitter rival of Chirac, his former mentor. Dominique de Villepin, the interior minister who shot to prominence as foreign minister during the Iraq war, is a Chirac loyalist. But appointing an aristocrat who has never been elected may send the wrong signal. Meanwhile, the EU constitution could be killed off on Wednesday when voters in the Netherlands take part in a referendum that is expected to provide an even more crushing defeat for the yes campaigners. With the result from France still reverberating aro-und Europe, a second no vote, which is overwhelmingly predicted by the polls, will mark a historic watershed in a country that was one of the original six founders of the European Economic Community half a century ago. As a deeply unpopular coalition government of Christian democrats and liberals struggled to rally last-minute support for the draft yesterday, all the signs were that the Dutch, in their first ever referendum, would deliver a stinging rebuff.

The political establishment, uniformly behind the constitution and shaken by the French verdict, tried yesterday to appeal to the perverse streak in the Dutch by urging them not to ape the French conduct. “We mustn’t let our laws be prescribed by the French,’’ said Jan Peter Balkenende, the Christian democrat prime minister. A French yes vote might have given the Dutch second thoughts, leaving them wary of voting no and possibly isolating themselves in the EU, the analysts said. By contrast, the debate in the Netherlands has struggled to take off, campaign material is virtually invisible, and the public apathetic. The government stands broadly accused of waging a complacent, lacklustre and frequently counter-productive pro-constitution campaign. On issues of policy substance there are similarities with France, but also telling differences. If the French rebelled against what they see as the threat of liberalising capitalism, a focus of French ire was the recommendation to liberalise the EU’s services sector. — The Guardian