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April 22, 2005

The EU Constitution (Or Not) Once More

I've become fascinated with the potential fallout from the upcoming French referendum on the European constitution, so a post on the subject by Lynne Kiesling at Knowledge Problem caught my attention.  Lynne points to an article on the subject in the Economist that, among other things suggests a French "non" doesn't spell the end for the constitution's future, let alone that of further economic integration as some have suggested.

The common wisdom is that if France votes no, the constitution is dead. But a rejection on May 29th would probably not be the end of the process. Officials in Brussels say that other national referendums on the constitution should go forward regardless of the outcome in France. This is because if the French vote no and the approval process grinds to a halt, European leaders would be tempted to tinker with the constitution to get French approval.

That does come with a "but"...

But this would tempt referendum voters in other countries then to imitate the French, forcing the process to repeat over and over.

... and the downsides persist even if the French don't bail:

But even if France and the Netherlands vote yes, further hurdles await the treaty. Poland, whose voters have soured on EU membership, will also hold a referendum. And Britain, historically the most Eurosceptical member of them all, is due to hold a vote in 2006. Were the French to vote no, however, the British, like the Dutch, might ditch their referendum. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, suggested as much for the first time on Monday, saying: “You can't have a vote on nothing.” And if the French vote yes to the treaty? That might only exacerbate Britons' fears of a socialist takeover of Europe, encouraging them to reject it.

Plan B?

Officials insist there is no “plan B”, hoping not to give sceptical voters an attractive alternative. But unofficially, there has been talk about the possibilities. One might be to keep the treaty’s “constitutional” sections, including the charter of fundamental rights, as well as the changes in the EU’s voting system and the Union's institutions, while cutting the section dealing with the EU’s policies in detail. These could be renegotiated later and appended to previous treaties (which the current constitution is meant to replace in full).

UPDATE: Be sure to read Bernard Godement's comment to this post (below).  Excellent, as always.

UPDATE II: EU-Serf at the the road to euro serfdom is unimpressed with the consequences of UK resistance. (Hat tip, Tim Worstall.)

UPDATE III:  Tyler Cowen, on the other hand, thinks ratification would be a good thing (for now).

April 22, 2005 in Europe | Permalink


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A few remarks in no particular order:

1) I would expect that the constitutional treaty (CT) is still moving following a French no. In fact, there is a provision in the CT that explicitely envisages the case where not all countries have ratified by 2006, and it says that the council (ie heads of state) then meets to look at the situation. Thus I would expect other countries to go on with the ratification process for the time being, except indeed for the UK (more on this below).

2) Did The Economist actually suggest that the Netherlands would stop their referendum following a French no ? The Dutch voting is set a couple days following the French date. I see it as impossible politically and in practice for the Dutch to annul a national vote in the course of two days.

3) I do expect T. Blair to stop the UK vote if the French vote no. The man is amongst other qualities pragmatic and knows very well that opinion in the UK has consistently been very opposed to "Europe" (as if the UK were not part of Europe).

Furthermore, I have long suspected that the introduction (for the first time ever) of a formalised process for leaving the EU in this CT, plus the provision for council meeting in 2006 in the event of non unanimous ratification by all 25 members was meant for the UK.

There is a real risk that a UK ratification process would be transformed anyway into a vote for or against staying inside the EU. T. Blair cannot afford for this risk to materialise.

4) the famous Plan B. Of course, there is no plan B at present in case of French rejection. To start with, it was not anticipated that France might reject the constitution. Secondly, since it has become apparent that there could be a rejection, the effect of, amongst others, French officials scrambling in panic to Brussels to invent an alternative plan might not be entirely positive in terms of the referendum result... Thirdly, that is what the 2006 meeting mentioned above is for: review the situation and deal with it. Therefore, there will by definition be a plan B and I have no idea what it will consist of. One thing is sure from my point of view. France and Germany will not anyway accept for long to have the extremely low and un-democratic voting rights devised under the Nice treaty which currently apply.

5) thus in my mind the B plan will not appear out of the blue in June 2005. Furthermore, insofar as a French no vote in the coming referendum would be as much (and in fact more) a rejection of the present French government as a vote against the CT, it seems to me that the B plan can only be elaborated from the French side following a full political clarification process in France itself. Fortunately so-to-speak France will hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007, therefore the clarification will take place by then, at the latest. I do not see how France could participate or initiate negociations with the other EU members prior to this.

6)It is entirely possible that the entire CT process could come to a halt "forever", and be replaced by a process of reinforced cooperation in certain areas among willing members, including France and Italy, because negociations among 25 members would be too arduous. The idea would be that eventually, at later stages, other members find that they have an interest in joining this leading group. Personally, but that is only my opinion, I have thought for the past 13 years that this should be the case. In other words I have always been in favour of deepening prior to enlargement and believe that a major culprit for the present mess is the fact that enlargement took place prior to political deepening.

More remarks, perhaps, later on.

Posted by: godement | April 23, 2005 at 07:06 AM

Was it a mistake ?

in point 6) of my post above, I meant France and Germany. I wrote instead France and Italy and am suddenly wondering: was this my subconcious speaking. See, I have admired Romano Prodi ever since his guys explained (1996) to me why Italy was going to join the Euro. And then did it.

Posted by: godement | April 23, 2005 at 09:41 AM

Interesting post and comments. I agree with most of what godement says. If the French vote goes no this will mean

1. A gift for Tony Blair, as he can call off a potentially difficult referendum campaign, and blame it all on the French with a big grin on his face. (that always plays well with the British public)

2. It will be hugely embarrassing for the French political class and their claim to european leadership (a gift to all who feel that the French approach to some issues - say the CAP - is not in fact as communautaire as they like to pretend)

3. Mean we stick with the Nice Treaty for now, which is rather worse in QMV terms for the French. A Treaty which is also widely recognised as a mess.

The irony of point 3 is plain to see. After all. After all, who managed the negotiations for the Treaty signed in Nice? You guessed it. The French held the presidency of the Council.

Of course - it will also lead to a lot of fevered brows and soul searching here in Brussels - but nothing new there :)

Posted by: rjw | April 23, 2005 at 04:08 PM

We Dutch will certainly not cancel our referendum if the French say no, but an interesting twist migth be that so few people are going to vote, it might be politically and by law declared of no importance. First of all the Dutch have the legal loophole that it's legally not binding. The Dutch referendum should have 30 percent of all voters in order to be considered leegally valid. However, the politcal fallout of not adhering to it, would be huge.

Interestingly, the Dutch argument for 'No' goes, amongst others, along lines like this:
"They voted us out of the Eurovision songcontest, so this is how it will go with the EU too, the big countries deciding everything". This is of course silly beyond believe, but it's the popular tabloid sentiment, so there.

Posted by: brian | May 22, 2005 at 11:57 PM

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