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Last Updated: Monday, 30 May, 2005, 08:41 GMT 09:41 UK
French 'No' vote is real crisis
Paul Reynolds
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent BBC News website

'Non' posters in France
Uncertainty lies ahead for the European project
Even though well forecast, the French rejection of the EU constitution is stunning.

It throws the future direction of the European Union into doubt.

That it should be France which has dealt this blow is the real shocker.

France has been at the heart of the post-war construction of Europe.

It has been the mover and shaker. Now it has certainly done a bit of shaking.

The original agreement by France and Germany to pool the raw materials of war, iron and steel, was the idea of far-sighted Frenchmen like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman.

They realised that three wars between the two countries since 1870 was enough and that Europe now required co-operation not confrontation.

The Coal and Steel Community grew into the Common Market, then into the European Community and finally into the European Union.

Good deal

When I went as a reporter to Brussels in 1982, French thinking absolutely predominated. It soon became obvious that when the French said that something was "good for Europe", they also meant that it was good for France.

Something is rotten in the state of Europe

The working language was French. The Commission spokesman spoke only in French and an attempt by the many non-European correspondents to get at least a translation into English was blocked on the grounds that this would "discriminate" against other languages.

Not that the Commission cared much about communication - it was too lofty.

Indeed the concept of the Commission as the guiding force of Europe was very much a French one. Here was a powerful, unelected civil service which actually had the sole power of proposing legislation. It still does in fact.

France had Germany, still racked with guilt, at its beck and call and the Germans poured vast sums into the budget, most of which went to farmers and much of it to French farmers. That was the deal. In exchange, the Germans got access to a common market for their manufactures. It worked pretty well.

So to have the French now saying a decisive "No" to the constitutional treaty is not only important. It is fundamental.

Options

This is not like Britain saying "No". That would be a problem. This is a crisis.

QUICK GUIDE

It means that something is rotten in the state of Europe.

The institutions of the EU have got ahead of the peoples of the EU.

European heads of state and government will creep to Brussels on 16 June to try to pick up the pieces. On 1 July, the British government takes over the EU presidency for a six-month stint and will be in the interesting position of having to come up with ideas.

There is no Plan B. All the constitutional treaty says about this situation is buried away in Article IV-443-4.

It states: "If, two years after the signature of the treaty amending this Treaty, four-fifths of the Member States have ratified it and one or more Member States have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification, the matter shall be referred to the European Council."

The two years is up on 29 October 2006.

There is no clear way forward. For the moment, the EU will stagger on under existing treaties.

It is possible that some bits of the constitution could be picked out and put together in a modest bundle - a more permanent presidency for example, rather than the everyone gets a turn principle which operates at the moment.

Future unclear

But more systemic plans, like an extension of majority voting and a change in the definition of a majority, will have to be put aside, for now.

And more broadly, Europe will not really know how or even whether it intends to act together in the future.

Does it want to forge a closer union or does it want to remain a looser collection of nation states?

To judge from the way it has failed to resolve this tension in the past, it is likely to continue somewhere in the middle.

The vision of Jean Monnet for a "United States of Europe" is not going to be realised. The EU is now far too big for such a project. And the French vote even casts doubt as to how big the EU will become.

There are grave implications in this vote for the accession of Turkey which featured in some of the hostile arguments against the constitution.

Talks with Turkey are due to start on 3 October. These talks could last for several years.

And right now, nobody knows what kind of Europe Turkey might one day join.


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