Monday, April 25, 2005

God has a sense of humour

From a few weeks ago, when the political élites of the EU had no idea what to do if the French rejected the constitution, other than carry on as if nothing had happened, the air is now buzzing with alternative ideas, with at least two possible "Plan Bs" in vogue.

Author of one alternative is Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg and temporary EU president, who seems to have developed his earlier "do nothing" plan to take account of the possibility that all other countries, barring Britain, actually ratify the treaty.

The assumption is that, following the French, the Dutch will vote "yes", as will all of the others, leaving only the UK and the Czech Republic outstanding by the autumn of 2006.

Given the preponderance of countries supporting the constitution, Juncker theorises that France might be prevailed upon to hold a second poll, which linked the constitution with continued EU membership. Under these circumstances, France would vote "yes", leaving the UK exposed and under pressure to come into line.

There are, however, a number of slight flaws in this scenario, not least the latest poll in Holland, which suggests that the Dutch might reject the constitution.

In a survey commissioned by Dutch NOS public television and published on Saturday, 52 percent of those planning to vote expressed an intention of voting "no", against 48 percent who supported the constitution. Furthermore, of those planning to reject the text, 61 percent said the European Union had more drawbacks than benefits.

That leaves Plan Blb, which is the much rehearsed "core-Europe" where some member states, centred round France and Germany, would go for multi-lateral integration, focused on co-operation in economic and fiscal policy. This could include the imposition of minimum tax rates or tax bands for some categories of taxation, and perhaps an attempt to preserve or strengthen their social model.

The dream scenario is that this "core" would include all the 12 eurozone countries, with the hope that a change in Italian leadership to Romano Prodi would bring Italy on board.

Prodi himself does not seem entirely on-side with this scenario as he is uttering the starkest of warnings of the consequences for a French "non". "We will pass through a long period of crisis," he says. "The problem will not only be a catastrophe for France, but the fall of Europe."

Wolfgang Munchau of The Financial Times also sees problems with this scenario, arguing that the political leadership in Europe is so weak that such a bold plan is extremely unlikely to move beyond the drafting stage. Chirac will be a lame duck and Schröder risks losing next month's state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany's most populous state. The two key players, therefore, are more likely to be preoccupied with their own political survival.

That, says Munchau, leaves Juncker's first plan. This, he believes, "is the only strategy that would keep a lid on an increasingly fractious EU." However, if to the French rejection, we add the Dutch, possibly the Danes, perhaps the Latvians, even the Poles and then the British and the Czechs – and maybe even the Irish – the "project" will truly be holed below the waterline.

In another of those delicious ironies, though, when it comes to dealing with the mess, Juncker will not be in the hot seat for long. On 1 July, he will be forced to hand over the baton to the new EU president, presumably Tony Blair Esq, who will be charged with brokering a solution. God does have a sense of humour after all.

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