Monday, May 30, 2005

The fat lady hasn't sung yet

It may have been a delicious evening. No, correction. It was a delicious evening, watching all those Euro-luvvies squirm.

Apparently, according to the Financial Times, a tattered European Union flag had been lowered to half mast in the heart of the Brussels' EU quarter even before the French polls closed at 10pm last night. That says something: flags should be struck before dusk, so it should not have been flying anyway.

But, if the Euro-luvvies get their way, the flag won't be at half-mast for long. Already, they have crafted their response, and it seems to be very much along the lines suggested by the Instituto Affari Internazionali.

Both Juncker and Barroso at the press conference after the result was declared, made reference to Declaration 30, stating that the ratification process should continue. Nothing, at least in the immediate future, must undermine the Dutch referendum.

Over the coming days, reports The Financial Times, Juncker will then meet 24 fellow European leaders, including Blair, some of whom will express severe doubts about whether they can ratify a treaty so decisively rejected by France.

Some "prominent 'yes' campaigners" in Britain, including Lib-dim Sir Menzies Campbell, are being more forthright. This one says it was "frankly silly" for Britain to proceed with its referendum. Even Nigel Farage, on Sky TV, declared the treaty "dead" and called for a broader referendum on Britain's relationship with Europe.

Liam Fox, Conservative shadow foreign minister, also piled in, calling for Blair to state whether Britain would now abandon attempts to ratify, in which case, said Fox, there would be no need to call a referendum – barely concealing his relief at the prospect of avoiding a contest that can only split the Tories.

But what all these erudite spokespersons failed to take into account is that member states cannot call a halt to the ratification process. Collectively, all 25 have committed themselves to seek ratification in their own countries. A decision to suspend or abandon the process can only be done collegially, in the European Council.

Thus, it was Chirac who got it right. Having avoided the temptation to throw his toys out of the pram, he referred in his guarded statement to the European Council meeting of 16 June. "There," he said, "I shall defend the positions of our country, while keeping in mind the message given by French men and women. But let us make no mistake, France's decision inevitably creates a difficult context for the defence of our interests in Europe."

It is at the European Council that the decision is going to be made and, on current evidence, the indications are that the "colleagues" will decide - by majority vote if need be - to continue the ratification process. Even now, some are also talking about asking France to conduct another vote, but that is for the future. At the moment, the imperative is to buy time, and continuing as before will do just that.

Straw, our own foreign secretary, gives the game away, sticking to the crafted line, that the French rejection of the treaty should be followed by "a period of reflection". What then will happen remains anybody’s guess, but the best minds of the Commission and the foreign ministries of the member states will be working on the problem.

But it was Jacques "Wheel" Barrot, the French transport commissioner, who, quoted by The Times, gives a clue. "It (the French rejection)", he said, "reminds me of the rejection of the European defence policy (by France in 1954)." And, as we reminded you recently on this Blog, from the wreckage of that rejection, three years later emerged the Treaty of Rome.

Throughout its history, the "project" has shown a remarkable ability to recover from what at the time seemed terminal disasters. So, as always, it is worth remembering that it ain't over until the fat lady sings – and she hasn't sung yet.

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