News Analysis: Tricky Albion? Blair throws EU into a spin

Posted in Europe | 22-Apr-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

PARIS - With the promise of a yes-or-no choice for British voters on a new European Union constitution, Tony Blair has pushed the EU to a new level of unclarity about its future as a unified force.

The message got through in Paris and Berlin. On Wednesday, the lead headline in Handelsblatt, the German financial newspaper said, "EU Constitution Threatened with K.O."

Le Figaro seized the point, too. "Europe Taken Hostage, Draft Text in Peril," it said.

An article accompanying the French newspaper's headline suggested that Blair, plotting his own election strategy for a third term, might be sealing both the end of an integrationist vision of a United Europe while setting himself up as the EU's only major leader democratically daring enough to throw the institution's future to his country's voters.

Perfidious, or at least tricky Albion? The question is marginal because, in a weakened but enlarging Europe, an association of growing size but shriveling confidence, the clearest effect in Europe of Blair's move was to get the EU's backers looking at London bookmakers' 6-to-1 odds in favor of British rejection. In theory, a single member country's nonacceptance would block adoption (assuming a draft constitution gets approved eventually) by the whole EU.

Indeed, some pro-EU, pro-referendum idealists, who make the point that the EU's biggest failure is in the faint passions of support it inspires among its citizens, see Blair's call jogging real debate everywhere in Europe and prodding recalcitrant Euro-pols to consider more direct involvement of national constituencies on big issues. In Germany, perhaps more for the principle of it than the reality, both the Greens and the autonomous Bavarian wing of the Christian Democrats indicated they would favor a single European vote on the constitution.

But Europe's circumstances were completely spun around by the British prime minister's announcement.

Before Blair apparently decided that holding a referendum would remove the messy campaign issue of Britain's relationship with the EU from European Parliament elections in June and probable British national elections in 2005, Europe could be seen as moving laboriously toward a constitution. Whatever the adjacent mountain of doubt, this suggested a new measure of coordination in European foreign and security policy.

Now, a looming British referendum - expected to follow on Britain's national elections, while the question of the country's membership in the euro gets left unclear - has pitched the weight of expectation toward an EU with no certainties, either on its constitution or movement toward integration.

Instead, there was the prospect of more referendums since they are either a legal obligation in a country like Denmark, or because avoiding such a vote might be regarded now in France as the Chirac government thumbing its nose at democracy direct and specific. Regardless of how narrowly formulated a referendum question on the constitution might be, in Denmark there is a qualmless history of rejecting EU propositions for more integration, and in France, real ballot-box fears about its diminished status in an enlarged Europe, and real opposition to the EU entry of Turkey and its Muslim population.

But before referendums are held, the member states must first approve a draft constitution. Spain has a nonbinding referendum planned, while Germany has restated that its constitution outlaws plebiscite-like voting. Ireland, however, will have a binding vote, and there are possibilities of similar ones being held in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.

If rejection of the constitution resulted and made forward movement on integration appear an impossibility, that would surely strengthen the desire, in France for example, for a multispeed Europe operating at separate levels of competence and unity among the 25 members.

For Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany, this is Little Europe thinking, which he describes as offering only an illusion of greater European decision-making capacity.

All in all, to Europe's legislative foot soldiers and civil servants, there appeared to be no immediately graspable way out of a predicament that had its base in a seemingly democratic decision by Blair that Matthias Wittmann, the Christian Democratic chairman of the Bundestag's Europe Commission, called an election "trick."

Jean-Bourlanges, a French centrist member of the European Parliament, complained Blair risked "steering Europe into an institutional impasse." Another European legislator, Klaus Hänsch, a German Social Democrat, insisted that the logical consequence of a British rejection of the constitution should be British exclusion from the EU.

And in a response that fit into the classic EU world of making an exception to get around another exception, the chairman of the Parliament's conservative grouping, Hans-Gert Pöttering, a German Christian Democrat, pointed to using a clause in the constitutional draft that would allow some movement without total ratification by the member states.

But the clause does not specify much beyond the Council of Europe's taking up the question two years after a draft constitution is adopted on the condition that four-fifths of the members have ratified it.

There could be a second attempt at ratification, as there were separate re-looks at the Maastricht Treaty, but with flimmering chances of success.

Could Europe at that time abandon its constitution, or instead, as Hänsch recommended, abandon Britain? Suggesting the extent of the EU's mood of discomfort, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany chose favoring neither alternative or the bookmakers' evaluation in providing a nonbinding comment on the referendum.

He said, "My friend Tony Blair knows exactly why he's done this and will certainly ensure it's done successfully for the benefit of Europe."