French Referendum: Narrow French 'yes' leaves EC in crisis: Major calls summit next month to address European divisions over Maastricht and disarray in currency markets

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN Community is to hold a summit on the stricken Maastricht treaty, after France voted for the agreement, but by a very narrow margin.

The result was a cliffhanging 50.95 per cent for 'yes' and 49.05 for 'no,' a difference of half a million voters out of a total of 26 million. That is far from the resounding victory for European union that the EC had hoped for from the country that has been the locomotive of integration, and leaves a big question mark hanging over the treaty. Britain has yet to ratify and many European officials voiced fears that it would not.

A special summit of EC leaders was called last night by John Major to find a response to the concerns of people across the EC towards the treaty.

'We have to take account of the concerns that have been expressed right the way across Europe,' the Prime Minister said in a Whitehall statement last night. He said the emergency summit would be held 'in early October' - with EC leaders possibly meeting in London next week.

Mr Major said that a return of the Maastricht ratification Bill to the Commons would have to await the results of that summit, and the Danish government's proposals for overcoming Denmark's negative referendum result. But few expect the legislation to go back to Parliament before the end of the year.

Reacting to the French result on Maastricht and last week's withdrawal of sterling from the exchange rate mechanism, Mr Major said: 'We firstly await Denmark's conclusions on how she will deal with the particular problems of ratification that she faces.

'Secondly, I believe we need to deal with the particular problems in the foreign exchange markets in recent days, that have revealed shortcomings in the exchange rate mechanism system.

'And thirdly, I think we do have to take account in public debate of many of the concerns that have been raised throughout the Community over recent weeks.'

The Prime Minister believes the people of Europe are increasingly sharing what he calls the British 'instinct' for greater decentralisation and enhanced democracy within the Community - something he believes will lead to a more attractive future for the EC.

Anticipating Mr Major's summit call, John Smith, the Labour leader, said that while he welcomed the French 'yes' the result did not remove the problem caused by the Danish 'no'.

He said: 'As EC president, Mr Major has a direct responsibility to initiate now the discussions which will be necessary if a positive solution is to be found.'

He told BBC television: 'We simply cannot proceed with the ratification of the Bill in the House of Commons until the roadblock created by the Danish 'no' is removed or somehow dealt with.'

But, signalling the problems Mr Smith himself faces with senior party members, who meet to consider EC policy on Wednesday, Bryan Gould, the leading Shadow Cabinet opponent of the treaty, said it attempted to 'foist' damaging economic and monetary union on the EC; and John Prescott, another Labour frontbencher, said Maastricht was a step towards a federal Europe.

Both Mr Major and Mr Smith will resist internal party calls for a British referendum - an issue on which the Liberal Democrats are also split.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said of the French result: 'The focus will now switch to Britain. We will have to decide if we are going to be a part of the new Europe or separated from it. The Prime Minister, both as president of Europe and leader of Britain, must now show leadership to press forward with ratification of Maastricht in the House of Commons.

'Last Wednesday, Mr Major put Britain not at the heart of Europe but at its periphery. He must now act to ensure that the failures of his policies do not make this relegation permanent.'

But Lord Parkinson, a former Conservative Party chairman, reflected the resistance faced by Mr Major from his party's Thatcherite wing, when he said before the result that the treaty was a 'dead duck'.

With an eye on the UK, Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission, issued a special appeal to those states that still have to ratify. 'I hope that they will do so in the reasoned hope of builing a closer co-operation so as to realise those common objectives that have been clearly and democratically defined,' he said. In private his senior aides admitted that the situation in Britain was diffult. 'We are going to have to be very careful,' said one.

Mr Delors, the man who had staked his political career on a French 'yes', was visibly relieved last night at the result but aware that the narrowest of margins made euphoria inappropriate. He refused to countenance the idea that the strength of opposition to the treaty would restrict French influence in the future. 'In a referendum, even one carried by a narrow majority, the only thing that matters is the result.'

But he added: 'We must take into account the doubts and anxieties of those who voted 'no'.'

(Photograph omitted)

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