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As France votes and Netherlands watches

Posted by Helen Sunday, May 29, 2005

It is no longer the “peripheral” countries like Britain or the Scandinavians, let alone the new East European members that cause or are likely to cause problems. The rot is there at the heart of the project in a way that has astonished the euro-elite.

A couple of days ago I took part in a short discussion on Sky News about the French referendum with Baroness Ludford MEP. (I have maintained for some time that the broadcasters do no favours to the yes side by inviting MEPs and other official beneficiaries of the system. Perhaps, nobody else will agree to take part. But who is going to listen to someone who spends her life dashing from the European Parliament to the House of Lords, travelling 1st class on the Eurostar at the taxpayers’ expense?)

Baroness Ludford was not too happy. She tried all the usual arguments about streamlining the rules, defining roles and giving various rights to parliaments. But she could not get round the fact that a 400-plus page document is not precisely streamlining or, my final argument, that the project has trundled on for years, as one of the political elite. Now the people are finally speaking up and they do not like it.

The good baroness flounced out of the studio, muttering about the many thousands of pages that the British constitution consists of but not waiting for any replies.

It has always been clear in the minds of the founding fathers, like Monnet, that the European project must be pushed forward without any inconvenient intervention by the people of Europe. And how right they were. If only Giscard d’Estaing had not come up with his grandiose plans for a Constitution, this treaty, too, might have slipped in with nothing much more than a bit of grumbling on the periphery.

Indeed, that was expected with some disdain. In January at a conference in Vienna, I debated with Aurore Wanlin, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. Her arguments, pronounced with a charming French accent were that the Constitution was making the EU more democratic because it was introducing more layers in the structure.

Mine were much simpler: if there is no accountability there is no democracy. But the funniest discussion, in retrospect was about the possibility of Britain voting no. Well, she said primly, France will be quite happy if Britain simply leaves the EU. I asked whether France would be quite so happy to lose Britain’s financial contributions and answer came there none.

A couple of months later I noticed that Ms Wanlin published an article in which she explained that the success of the French no campaign showed that the EU had lost touch with the people of Europe. Amazing what one can find out in two or three months.

The Centre for European Reform, an erstwhile perestroika europhile think-tank, now a flag-waving, cheer-leading supporter of the project (with young Mark Leonard as its foreign affairs director), seems to be brooding on the possibility of no votes in France and the Netherlands.

They are a wonderful institution and their papers appear to be solid, well researched and carefully argued in a balanced sort of way. Except for the fact that there is no possibility envisaged of the project not being the best thing since sliced bread.

The two recent papers on the possibility of a French no and the probability of a Dutch one are carefully given to a discussion of what to do, how to salvage the treaty in that dire situation.

One solution would be to save parts of the treaty and effectively introduce them in a more surreptitious fashion.

“Of course, such attempts to save parts of the constitutional treaty – either through informal application or a mini-IGC – would be highly controversial.Eurosceptics in Britain, France and elsewhere would complain that once again political elites were arrogantly strenghtening the EU behind the backs of the people. If a single EU government felt weak-kneed at the prospect of incurring eurosceptic wrath, such attempt could not work. Both the informal application of parts of the treaty and a mini-IGC would require the unanimous support of every member-state.”
Note, please, the reference to that inconvenient aspect of the whole process, the people, now known as the source of “eurosceptic wrath” to be overcome by the wise and strong-minded governments.

And what if the Dutch vote nee? Well, surely, says the Centre for European Reform, we have been here before. After all, the Danish and Irish governments managed to persuade their countries to vote yes the second time round.

It seems quite extraordinary, but these people actually do not understand what it is they are saying.

In the meantime, let me remind our readers of one of the most glorious if seriously ridiculous scenes in cinema history. The film: Casablanca, the place: Rick’s Bar. German officers start singing the Horst Wessel Song when Viktor László, the leader of the Czech resistance, for some reason bearing a Hungarian name, takes over and instructs the band to play the Marseillaise.

They do so and one by one all the staff and customers join in, till the entire bar resounds to the words:

Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos battaillons!
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impure
Abbreuve nos sillons!