Saturday, April 23, 2005

Constitution muddles

In an extraordinary piece of hubris, the egregious Peter Mandelson – he of the Caribbean cocktail circuit – has been lecturing the Dutch on the perils of voting “no” in their EU referendum.

A rejection of the constitution, he says, could bring economic chaos, undermine Europe's negotiating power in global free trade talks and usher in a long period of protectionism. "It will puncture my position in the Doha development round if Europe is seen by the rest of the world to be falling apart," he said.

This great expert in EU affairs was then heard to tell his audience of Dutch Europhiles: "I'm not saying that Europe would fall apart. At best Europe would stagnate. At worse we would face some sort of chaos,"

"A 'no' vote means Europe turning in on itself, examining its navel again," he added. "It would mean people in the rest of the world taking Europe less seriously and... from a trade point of view that is the very last thing that Europe needs."

No content with that, he then rounded on his audience, accusing the "Dutch political elite" of taking a "yes" vote for granted. "As founder members of the European project, you were in from the start," he told them. "But then too many politicians have run away or closed their ears to growing public dissatisfaction. Such complacency will no longer do," he added.

At a press conference at Schiphol Airport, he reinforced his message about the perils of a "no" vote.

"The financial markets, business community don't like instability, don't like uncertainty and if the markets were to read a 'no' vote in that way it could have damaging economic consequences," he told journalists, finishing with an exhortation to "business leaders" to rally behind the treaty. They could not afford "to put their heads in the sand," he said.

Meanwhile, The Telegraph is telling us that Europe's “pro-federalist leaders” have launched a campaign to save the EU constitution from imminent death should France vote "no".

The key to their "Plan B", we are told, is to insist that countries due to hold votes later this year - or even next year, like Britain - carry on regardless of the result in France until all 25 member states have been given a chance to ratify the treaty.

They are asserting that there is a moral, political and even a legal obligation to carry on voting - an argument aimed squarely at Britain and, in particular, Tony Blair, who is now hinting that the referendum will be abandoned.

Picking up on yesterday's Financial Times story, The Telegraph retails the views of Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker saying that: "The French vote is important but I don't believe it should stop the ratification process under way in other countries."

What is new though is that "senior Eurocrats" have started murmuring that Britain and other waverers are obliged to continue the ratification process.

Their argument is founded on the declaration to the draft constitution that says that if, by December 2006, four fifths of the 25 states have ratified the treaty but "one of more member states have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification", then "the matter will be referred" to the European Council.

We are told that commission spokesperson Fran├žoise le Bail – she who thought that Barroso had done nothing wrong by spending a week on the yacht of a Greek billionaire – is insisted that a Council could only gauge the true depth of EU support for the constitution if voting continued,

However, not all governments of EU member states agree. One EU diplomat said: "It's obvious that if the French vote 'no' there will be an immediate discussion between the governments."

This unnamed source adds that: "If President Chirac says the French won't vote twice, then the idea that other countries are going to go on to ratify is laughable. For one thing, how exactly do you go about winning a 'yes' campaign in another country, if the French have made clear they are going to veto the constitution at the end?"

The man has a point. If the French do vote "no", we will in due course see Blair slide out of his commitment to hold a referendum in the UK, although he may leave announcing the decision until after the Dutch or even the Danish referendum.

But he would do better not to crow too loudly and someone had better tell Mandelson to tone it down a bit as well.

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