Alarm bells sound over Maastricht: Major says French 'no' would kill ratification Bill as EC leaders return to find campaign in disarray

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The threat of French voters killing the Maastricht treaty on European union caused a frisson of alarm across the EC yesterday. Despite polls showing the 'yes' campaign regaining some ground, politicians in London, Brussels and Rome peered publicly for the first time into the economic and political void that would be left by a 'non' vote in the French referendum on 20 September.

In Britain the Prime Minister's office acknowledged that French rejection would destroy the treaty, forcing the Government to withdraw its own ratification Bill. Martin Bangemann, Germany's senior European commissioner, conceded after a gloomy meeting of the EC executive in Brussels that ratification would be aborted in all member states. Another commissioner said: 'Everything is now overshadowed by France. There is a general feeling of unease and anxiety.'

Emilio Colombo, the Italian Foreign Minister, called on Italy's parliament to speed its ratification debate and reduce the lira's special arrangements within the European Monetary System to help to 'dispel concerns' in France about economic and political integration in Europe.

The sudden chorus of anxiety was explained in part by politicians returning after their August break to find the French 'yes' campaign in disarray. But the comments also appeared to be timed to coincide with the first French television debate on the Maastricht referendum tonight.

The strategy adopted by EC states after the defeat of the treaty in the Danish referendum in June was to keep quiet and let the furore die down. But they misread the mood in France, where the inactivity of the pro-Maastricht campaign - and the silence of other states - has allowed opponents to build up a head of steam.

Latest opinion polls in France show support for the treaty has hardened, but only marginally. The 'yes' campaign is still very nervous. Tonight, the two protagonists - President Francois Mitterrand for the 'ouis' and Philippe Seguin, a right-wing politician, for the 'nons' - face each other in a live televised debate.

It will fall to the British government, which holds the EC presidency, to staunch the effect on European currencies of a 'no' vote and begin the search for an alternative way forward for the Community. This weekend's meeting of EC finance ministers, to be hosted by Norman Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer, at Bath, will try to lay plans to avert any significant increases in interest rates across the Community. That meeting will be followed by a session of foreign ministers, in London on Monday. Under the chairmanship of Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, they are expected to explore the possibilities of a political salvage operation.

At least one senior Conservative suggested yesterday that, despite those headaches, the Government might secretly welcome the demise of a treaty that faces increasing opposition within its own ranks. David Howell, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told BBC radio: 'Of all the unpleasant courses ahead, I think the demise of the treaty, a clear French 'no', is probably going to be the least troublesome. It'll be very troublesome even so, but less trouble than trying to support a treaty which has fewer friends.'

The Prime Minister's office stressed last night that John Major still believed that Maastricht represented a negotiating success and would be good for the UK and for the EC as a whole.

But Mr Major came under attack from Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, for refusing to accept Mr Mitterrand's appeal for direct help in his referendum campaign. The decision represented 'the most discreditable lack of leadership', he said.

In Brussels yesterday, an influential adviser said: 'It has always been assumed that if the French said 'no', that would kill Maastricht as we know it. What's changed is our assessment of the likelihood of that happening.'

The European newspaper, in a front-page editorial today, calls on the French to reject Maastricht, as that would be a vote for a more democratic Europe.