Don’t mention the referendum (please!)

PUBLISHED: 09:47 16 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:01 22 October 2010

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Continuing paralysis over the rejected constitution has made the EU summit look rather pointless, says political editor Chris Fisher. And there is at least another year of such torpor to come.

It is just over a year since the French and Dutch voted against the proposed EU constitution. And the elite and the institutions of 'Europe' are still in shock.

They had not prepared for the peasants' revolt against their calculations. They did not believe it could happen. Consequently, there was no plan B. Furthermore, there still isn't.

This was obvious - and painfully so for some of the participants - when EU leaders gathered in Brussels last night for one of the regular summit meetings.

Regular in terms of timing, but not in terms of agenda. With post-referendum disarray and paralysis continuing, there seemed very little for Tony Blair, President Chirac and the other players to talk about.

There are major unresolved disagreements about how the EU should respond to the big setback.

Fourteen of the 25 member countries have already ratified the constitution, and they and some others still want to proceed with it. That plainly implies asking the French and Dutch to vote again and deliver a different verdict. It would also mean reviving the commitment to a referendum in Britain.

In reference to the EU's 'Constitutional Treaty', Labour's last general election manifesto stated: "It is a good treaty for Britain and for the new Europe. We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign wholeheartedly for a 'Yes' vote to keep Britain a leading nation in Europe."

How dated that seems today. The crucial referendums in France and the Netherlands took place only about a month after our general election. And notwithstanding the commitment quoted above, Mr Blair must have felt much relieved when he heard how the French and Dutch had voted.

They had got him off a very nasty hook, and he was able to put the referendum pledge on the top shelf in the furthest corner of the room.

It is inconceivable, even if the French and Dutch had voted 'Yes', that Britain's voters would have backed the constitution in a referendum. Antipathy to it runs deep and wide in this country, and a prime minister well past his days of popularity would have had no chance of overturning it.

For him, a referendum campaign would have been a walk down death row to the execution chamber.

He would have crashed to a big defeat, and would have had to

resign within a few days. So, he had a lucky escape.

He has no interest in revisiting these dangers in what remains of his premiership, and therefore those who want to revive the constitution in its current form can expect no backing from him.

They should not look either for any support from Gordon Brown. He has long stood to the Euro-sceptic side of Mr Blair, and he would not want to plunge to a referendum defeat in his early months as prime minister and Labour leader.

Both of them are therefore essentially on the side of inertia at present with reference to the constitution. And the continuing uncertainty about the timing of the transfer of power from one to the other makes it all the more difficult for EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and like-minded Europhiles to move things on.

Britain, moreover, is certainly not the only country where there is an impending change of leadership or where top politicians are keen not to nail themselves to the mast of the EU constitution.

In France, both these factors are at work. Mr Chirac's term of office expires in the spring of next year, and he is not expected to seek re-election.

The main contenders for the succession - Nicolas Sarkozy, Dominique de Villepin and Segolene Royal - have a clear interest in being very careful about what they say on the subject of the constitution. Virtually the whole of the political establishment in Paris is committed to the constitution in principle. But to take such a position without heavy caveats in an election campaign would be to invite retribution from disaffected voters.

There is no doubt of course where new Italian prime minister Romano Prodi stands on the issue. He is a former president of the EU Commission and is strongly committed to the cause of further integration. But the coalition he heads is weak, and he will not want to hand political ammunition to the defeated, and apparently still sulking, Silvio Berlusconi.

German chancellor Angela Merkel also has difficulties as her coalition cabinet has as many Social Democrats as it does members of her Christian Democrats.

The former seem firmly committed to the constitution. She herself seems more flexible and pragmatic, and she could be the key figure eventually in getting the EU out of the impasse.

Germany will become the holder of the EU's rotating presidency next year, and it has been agreed that it should submit new proposals on the constitution at a summit meeting in 12 months' time.

By then, the French presidential election will be over.

And Britain will either have a new prime minister or will be on the point of getting one. Until that time, however, it is difficult to see how progress can be made. There will be more rather pointless summits, and a lot of frustration.

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