Europe faces up to double rejection of treaty
London Telegraph | May 24, 2005
By Colin Randall in Paris and George Jones
French voters appear ready to deliver a humiliating rebuff to the European establishment by rejecting the proposed EU constitution, according to opinion polls last night.
They showed the No vote strengthening to an eight-point lead in the final days of campaigning before Sunday's referendum.
No vote campaign material
Polls show that there is still a large number of undecided voters
With objectors gaining ground in France and firmly entrenched in Holland, where a referendum is to be held three days later, Brussels is considering how to deal with the previously unthinkable combination of two founder members of the EU turning against the blueprint for further integration.
A French or Dutch No could defeat the treaty outright or delay it for a number of years, frustrating its stated goal of streamlining decision-making in the expanded 25-member union.
Each country must approve the constitution for it to take effect next year.
A negative vote could bring months of political confusion and economic instability amid recriminations and debates over the next move.
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An opinion poll released yesterday for the magazine Paris Match gave an eight-point lead to opponents of the treaty, with 54 per cent saying No and 46 per cent saying Yes. This is the highest No score since the end of April.
Two surveys released on Monday put the gap at six points.
Polls show that there is still a large number of undecided voters whom the French establishment is hoping to bring over with appeals to stand by the country's pro-European record.
A majority of Dutch respondents, who vote on June 1, are also against the constitution.
The constitution allows for the creation of an EU president and foreign minister with limited powers.
Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, appealed to French and Dutch voters yesterday to shun the appeals from the increasingly confident No campaigners.
"Of course it [the constitution] is not perfect," he wrote in the French newspaper Le Figaro. "But it is an undeniable step towards the European ideal. A step forward, towards the Europe we want, the citizens' Europe."
Speaking to reporters in The Hague, he refused to speculate about the chance of a No vote.
"I have experienced so often as prime minister that polls are different than the final outcome. Next week is the real moment," he said. "Everybody's vote counts. The question is whether we go ahead with Europe or stand still."
In France the main focus of opposition is among voters of the Left, who see it as a British blueprint for a free-market Europe, which would sweep away the French social model.
Laurent Fabius, the former socialist prime minister who is defying his party's decision to join President Jacques Chirac in a Yes vote, said: "It is important that the No vote be from the left, a Socialist no, a socially-conscious no."
Voters in France, despite its role at the heart of the European project, have expressed their alarm at the prospect of membership talks with Turkey, and a proposal to allow EU countries with low labour costs to provide services in richer states.
They have also used the referendum as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the economy under President Chirac, who faces a major humiliation on Sunday.
A rejection by French voters would give Tony Blair an excuse to cancel a British referendum. It would also saddle the incoming British EU presidency with the task of deciding what to do with an unwanted constitution.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, insisted yesterday that the Government would press ahead with a referendum on the constitution as long as there was a treaty to vote on.
He said yesterday's publication of the EU Constitution Bill was a demonstration of the Government's confidence in the proposed constitution and its determination to win the referendum.
The Bill paves the way for the first national vote on British membership of the EU for 30 years, but does not set a date.
Mr Straw said the issue of whether the referendum would go ahead in the event of a French or Dutch No vote was "hypothetical".
The Conservatives have pressed the Government to end the uncertainty and confusion by holding the referendum on October 13, which was the earliest practical opportunity for a poll.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, said there would be no point in holding a UK referendum if France and the Netherlands rejected the treaty.
The outcome in France seems to rest on the volatile socialist vote.
Mr Chirac's best hope of avoiding defeat lies in a last-minute rally in support - or at least grudging acceptance - of the constitution among undecided voters, who number more than half in some polls.
Le Figaro, which supports the constitution, said the elements of uncertainty were enough to make it possible that when polling ended on Sunday night, France would have voted Yes.