Tuesday, May 31, 2005
The French Referendum, the EU and Us
It's true that in 1975 before the campaign for the referendum started, there was a 2-1 poll majority in favour of pulling out but after the campaign the result was a 2-1 majority for staying in. But then the press and business was solidly in support of 'Common Market' membership; this time the press is mostly hostile and the public, fed on such a diet for a decade or more, are hostile to the EU too. Moreover a referendum will almost certainly be used as an opportunity for a protest vote against an unpopular government. Few can doubt that many people, who voted for Blair earlier this month, would take the chance to deny him victory if the stakes were lower than a general election. So French communists and Le Pen supporters have let Blair off the hook. Robin Cook, I heard today, has suggested that now the 'natural' standing down occasion of the referendum has been denied the PM, he should instead go later this year. Tony really should have given him a job a few weeks back.
The third effect is that France has possibly opened up the chance that Chirac will urge the creation of an 'inner core' EU which retains the agricultural privileges it enjoys and protects the socalled 'French model' of employment protected welfarism. Should this happen Britain will be shifted to the margins of the EU though such a move might precipitate the complete unravelling of the EU project which some commentators are predicting. However the EU countries have much to lose by such an eventuality. Furthermore the expected election in the autumn of the Christian Democrats in Germany under a reforming rightwing Frau Merkel(compared by many to Maggie Thatcher) will militate against such a comforting refuge for the beleagured Chirac.
The fourth effect is that the Conservatives will have lost a valuable stick with which to beat their infuriatingly successful chief opponent. They have been salivating over the expected disaster of a Blair led Yes campaign. If it falls flat enough, they have reasoned, it might even precipitate his removal from office with his place in history-long assumed to be concerned with locking the UK into the heart of the EU- still unachieved. Now that happy scenario has been denied the former natural party of government and they have to envisage a more trouble free transition of power to the ever-waiting Gordon Brown. In the short term, additionally, Eurosceptics fear the removal of the draft constitution from the political agenda might encourage the defiantly Europhile Ken Clarke from dusting down his leadership application one more, possibly successful time.
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