EU Referendum

23 May 2005

No Plan B: The French EU Referendum

By Gwynne Dyer

President Jacques Chirac’s tone now often verges on the desperate. “How can we renegotiate?” he asked French voters in early May. “Do you really believe it is serious to say that? There’s not the shadow of a chance….Renegotiation does not exist. There is no Plan B.”

Most French presidents end up feeling frustrated by the French people, the most mulish and contrary electorate on the planet. Chirac’s current frustration is driven by their ambivalence about the new constitution of the European Union, which they must approve or reject in a referendum on Sunday (29 May). As recently as last September, 69 percent of French voters backed the constitution, but then they realised that it gave them a chance to say “no” to a government that they dislike for quite different reasons high unemployment and slow growth — and the “yes” vote began to slide.

By March, the “yes” was barely ahead of the “no”, and the lead has been passing back and forth between the two sides ever since, usually with barely a percentage point between them. France’s ruling centre-right coalition and the main opposition party, the Socialists, both officially support the new constitution, as do every major newspaper and TV channel and a galaxy of celebrities from Jeanne Moreau to Johnny Halliday, but it hasn’t been enough. The French are unhappy, and it looks as if somebody is going to pay.

That somebody is the European Union, which will have great difficulty in making decisions if the French say “no”. The new constitution, which must be ratified by every one of the 25 member countries, is intended to streamline the EU’s decision-making process by allowing most decisions to be made by a “qualified majority” of countries representing 65 percent of the population. The old system where a single country could veto any decision, already cumbersome when there were only fifteen members, could cause virtual paralysis now that there are ten more.

If the mandarins in Brussels had left it at that, there would have been little trouble in getting the change ratified by the 25 national legislatures, and few people would have been calling for a referendum on it. Their mistake was to seize the opportunity to make a whole new constitution for the EU, and then to write one so long and complex — it’s 300 pages in English, and reaches 480 pages in Dutch — that it roused the suspicions of every disgruntled nationalist from Portugal to Poland and from Sweden to Greece.

Constitutions should be brief statements of ideals and general operating rules that leave the fine print to other kinds of legislation, but this one incorporates almost every existing EU treaty as well. That’s where the bulk of the text comes from, but it also adds a bill of rights, an elected EU president with a 30-month term, and a single foreign minister, plus the new “qualified majority” rule that promises to bring more flexibility and more democracy to the decision-making process. All this in dense legal language that allows ample scope for paranoia to grow among disaffected voters.

There would be little problem in getting the new constitution ratified if the process mostly involved votes in legislatures, and usually that’s how it works in the EU: the German and Italian parliaments, for example, have already ratified the new constitution. A few smaller EU countries are constitutionally obliged to hold referenda on this sort of change, but if they say “no” it doesn’t necessarily derail the whole process: they just get asked to vote again until they get it right, and usually they do second time around. But if a big country like Britain or France says “no”, the new constitution is in potentially fatal trouble.

In a way, the constitution is yet another casualty of the invasion of Iraq. Neither Britain nor France was expected to hold a referendum on it, but then Prime Minister Tony Blair ambushed President Chirac. Facing a national election with his popularity severely eroded by Iraq, Blair secured crucial support from the British papers owned by the Europhobe Australian-American press magnate Rupert Murdoch by promising to put the constitution to a referendum. France then had to follow suit, and the whole project began to unravel.

Some French voters are clearly using the referendum to punish Chirac, but many appear to believe the wildly exaggerated stories that are circulating in France about how the new constitution will undermine French independence and destroy the French welfare state. It would not be the end of the EU if they reject the constitution, but it would certainly put a severe cramp in its style.

Of course, there is a long tradition of brinkmanship in the EU. The political elite in Brussels and in various member countries who dream of a real European state often propose very bold measures (like last year’s “big bang” that brought in ten new members all at once), counting on their more reluctant fellow-citizens to go along with them in the end rather than risk sabotaging the whole European project.

That may happen again on Sunday: some of France’s “no”voters are probably lying to the pollsters in order to have a go at the establishment. But the Dutch may vote “no” next Wednesday (though that would be less serious), and a British “no” later on could still either kill the new constitution or drive Britain out of the European Union. This is the EU’s boldest act of brinkmanship yet.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“If the mandarins…disaffected voters”)