Monday, May 30, 2005

Europe on hold...

So, the polls were right: France has voted "no" to the European Constitution, and fairly resoundlingly at that - almost 55% of a high, 70% turnout. The damage limitation mechanisms swung immediately into effect last night, with Commission President Barroso stating that it was a blow, but not a fatal one, for the Consitution, and most leaders, in public at least, urging those countries still to hold referenda to continue with the ratification process. This, however, could well be simply to keep alive the slim hopes that the Dutch won't reject the treaty in a couple of days' time - however, they are on course for an even more emphatic "no" than the French. In private, it seems that, unless the French (and perhaps the Dutch) can be persuaded to set dates for future referenda on the same issue, most leaders have accepted that the scale of the French rejection, coupled with the likelihood of another rejection by another of the EU's founding members, will be enough to effectively kill off the treaty - in its current form, at least.

Analysis of the possible fall-out from this decision has already begun (see here, here and here; and, for a view from the other side of the Atlantic, see the posts from the Opino Juris blog here and here); however, it remains far too early to say much with any certainty. It seems likely that much of the responsibility for cleaning up the mess will fall on Blair, as the UK is due to take over the presidency of the EU in July. Although he will be relieved that he will almost certainly not have to lead the probably futile campaign for a "yes" vote in the UK - upon which, many believed, the future of his premiership hinged - he will not relish the prospect of being the man of the moment in what promises to be one of the most significant crises to afflict the EU since it began. At the very least, it means that his priorities of economic reform of the Union will be pushed very far down the agenda, if not off it altogether.

What might this "no" mean? In many respects, this is a misleading question, as, as has been noted here in various previous posts on the subject, those in favour of rejection in France came from wildly different ends of the political spectrum. Some arguments we can dismiss out of hand: for example, Socialist Henri Emmanuelli's claim that the vote would lead to a new, "socialist Europe" seems to display an almost outrageous and utterly unfounded optimism, given that the fragmented French left has not been able to secure much of a socialist France - and that the "no" vote relied just as heavily on the reactionary, nationalist right as it did on the socialist left.

Some themes did seem to be common, however, not the least of which was that the Consitution was "Blairiste", overly-favouring free-market economic policies at the percieved expense of many French national interests. It is most interesting in this regard that all eyes seem to be on Chirac, and how he will play this issue. Will he seek to shore up his own crumbling popularity domestically by opportunistically repositioning himself in line with public discontent by blaiming Britain, and Blair, for the nature of the Constitution? Or will he seek to deflect attention from himself by sacking the unpopular prime minister Raffarin and replacing him with the far more popular (and populist) Sarkozy (who, incidentally, would move things in a direction much more in tune with Blair's own)?

One thing is certain: the populations of Europe are deeply, deeply divided over the direction the Union should take, and over which states should play the leading roles, both internally and externally. The French appear to have rejected the Consitution, in significant part at least, because they viewed it as overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon; a Constitution, remember, that UK public opinion also was overwhelmingly opposed to. This alone does not bode well for a speedy, secure resolution of the crisis in the foreseeable future; add to the mix another 23 countries, all with their own agendas, not to mention continuing - indeed, deepening - rifts over issues such as the UK's budget rebate and the propsed accession of Turkey - and the situation looks ever more grim. We are, it seems, living in interesting times.

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