Monday, April 18, 2005

Referendum looks doomed

As predicted by this Blog last week, a referendum in the UK of the EU constitution is highly unlikely if the French vote "no" on 29 May - making the outcome far more important than the little local event on 5 May.

That the referendum is likely to be abandoned is confirmed by The Telegraph, which today is retailing the comments of Jack Straw made during the ITV Jonathon Dimbleby programme yesterday, which suggest that a French vote against the EU constitution would lead to the UK decision.

Asked what would happen if the French rejected the constitution next month, Straw replied: "Nobody knows." He said the issue would be referred to a summit of EU leaders, but did not know what the outcome of those talks would be, or whether Britain would hold a referendum on a document already rejected by the French.

Separately, The Guardian is quoting "government sources" who are admitting that Britain is unlikely to hold a referendum if the polls in France are right and the country rejects the constitution.

Says this newspaper, the news may throw the combustible issue of Europe on to the election agenda. It is the first time Labour has entertained the prospect of shelving the referendum.

Analysing the implications, the paper suggests that a "yes" vote in Britain in autumn 2006 had been seen by some as an opportunity for Mr Blair to stand aside for Gordon Brown with an assured legacy as the man who reconciled Britain to Europe. The loss of such a date in the third-term calendar raises fresh questions over when Mr Blair might stand aside.

It feels that a "no" vote in France would also put pressure on Mr Blair to find acceptable minimalist reforms or see the EU evolve into a diffuse multi-speed bloc.

However, "private briefings from ministers" now confirm there would be a "long pause" as EU leaders, largely under a British presidency, considered the crisis. One said: "If Britain alone votes no, it is a problem for Britain. If France votes no, it is a problem for Europe. We would wait to see what the French had to say, but it is inconceivable that the constitution could go ahead."

The Blair angle is picked up by the Telegraph's Rachel Sylvester, in a long piece entitled: "Tony Blair's future depends on the voters of France, not Britain".

If, as seems increasingly likely, the French vote "no", she writes, "I am told that Labour would shelve its plans for a referendum in this country."

Although Mr Blair has promised to hold a vote, whatever the outcome of polls in other EU member states, he would, insiders say, use the French result to argue that it was pointless pursuing the matter in Britain while the future of the entire constitution was up in the air.
Although Jack Straw floundered yesterday when he was asked by Jonathan Dimbleby what would happen if there was a "no" vote in France, "privately, other Cabinet ministers are explicit that the British poll would be quickly dropped." Writes Sylvester: "A Cabinet member involved in the discussions told me 'If the French vote No, I don't believe we'll have a referendum'". "If there's a No on 29 May, then all bets are off," another said.

Sylvester thinks there would still be a crisis for Blair. As Britain takes over the European presidency in July, he would be responsible for steering the EU through the most difficult patch since its creation. It is difficult to see how the treaty could be renegotiated - particularly because if the French do reject it they will do so on the grounds that it is "too British", or too free market.

One idea being discussed in Whitehall is for Britain to propose a drastically slimmed-down statement of values - a "treaty lite" - that could be more easily agreed by all sides. But, as Straw indicates, nothing would happen quickly.

And, although Europe is the dog that didn't bark in this election campaign, Sylvester adds, it is, in the end, the issue that will determine what happens in politics over the next five years. French voters have the fate of both Labour and Conservative leaders in their hands.

If they vote "no", they will make it easier for Mr Blair to stay on because there will be no referendum crunch-moment for his leadership. They will also perhaps fatally undermine Mr Howard's position:

Right now, most Tories believe it would be foolish to stage a leadership contest before the European constitution vote is out of the way. If the referendum is scrapped, then all bets will be off for them too. On 5 May, the party leaders will put their fate in the hands of the British electorate but their futures will really be decided, three weeks later, on the other side of the Channel.
This, however, is the "Westminster village" view which, frankly, is of less importance than what will happen to the country. There, as I wrote earlier, we face the worst of all possible worlds.

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