By Kirsty Hughes
Writer on European and international affairs
Europe's politicians were right to be nervous about the outcome of the French referendum on the EU's constitution.
No founder member of the EU has rejected an EU treaty before
The No from France is likely to plunge the EU into an unprecedented crisis.
It reflects a variety of factors:
- Dissatisfaction with the current French government
- Worries (mostly misplaced) that the constitution moves the EU in an "Anglo-Saxon" direction economically
- General concerns at the development of the EU, especially a perceived reduction of France's influence in the enlarged Union
- Concerns at possible future membership of Turkey in the EU.
But whatever the mixture of reasons, the French "No" means that, for the first time, a large founder member has directly opposed the current process of European integration.
Before now, no EU treaty signed by all member governments has been left unratified - another first that is now on the cards.
But the French "No" also means that one of the fundamental aims of the new EU constitution has failed: bringing the EU closer to its publics.
France and the EU face a tough political challenge: how to respond to the French public - how to find a way to get French support for either the current or any future version of the Union after the rejection of today's Europe.
The immediate choice facing the EU's leaders is whether to continue with the ratification process elsewhere - as has happened in previous cases when the Danes and later the Irish said "No".
There may be sharp differences of view here: the UK which takes over the EU presidency at the end of June is likely to want to declare the constitution dead in the water, to get off the hook of its own referendum due in 2006.
It looks unlikely that France will vote again
But many other member states are keen to carry on with ratification. As Krzystof Bobinski of the Unia & Polska Foundation in Warsaw comments, "a lot of the smaller member states are saying, 'Why should France take the decision for everyone?' "
While he admits that in Poland itself many will be glad to see the back of the constitution, he thinks the likely "mother of all crises" would be very damaging for the EU.
"Poland needs safe harbours," he says. "Not harbours where the French dismantle the harbour walls as soon as Poland sails in."
France itself will have considerable influence in deciding whether ratification continues elsewhere, since it will have to assess whether there is any chance to ask the French to vote again, as the Danes and Irish did, though this looks fairly unlikely.
It has been argued that France and Germany will react by moving ahead with long discussed plans to create a so-called "core" Europe, leaving behind the British and other sceptical countries who hesitate on political integration.
But to launch "core" Europe out of desperation and crisis rather than strong political dynamism looks like a recipe for failure.
Some argued that a 'Yes' would help France keep its EU influence
Nor is it clear what a core Europe would do or indeed whether its membership would be much less than the current EU of 25, so undermining the whole point of a small "core".
In the short-run, France may lose political capital in the EU, having failed to deliver its public's support.
But it may find itself in the position of the British in the late 1990s, when it was thought the UK would soon have a euro referendum: in that case France, like the UK did, could argue that EU decisions must take more account of French concerns to woo back the French voter.
But other countries have voters to placate too.
An EU in crisis and one where there is more focus all round on national concerns and less on pan-European compromise will be one where decisions could get increasingly difficult for the foreseeable future - from budget agreements to decisions on future enlargements (although the Bulgaria and Romania enlargement treaty is already signed).
An EU gridlocked and inward-looking at a time of major international challenges is a likely outcome.
It would be better to go back to the drawing board with the aim of producing a much more understandable accessible text
Another key issue will be whether the EU goes ahead with membership negotiations with Turkey in the autumn, or whether it reneges on a major international commitment.
The two biggest decisions of the enlarged EU of 25 members have been agreeing the constitution and the deal with Turkey on negotiations. If the enlarged Union fails on both, its record of achievements will be reduced almost to nil.
Some suggest the EU could take some of the key parts of the constitution - an EU foreign minister, new voting arrangements, the European Council presidency - and push these through separately.
But not only are these things at the heart of the constitution, making it a rather cynical exercise to push ahead, it also means what is left out is all the hard work done to clarify, simplify and make more consistent current EU structures.
Better would be to go back to the drawing board with the aim of producing a much more understandable accessible text: but for now this looks the least likely outcome.
Kirsty Hughes is a former senior fellow of the Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels.