Brussels reels from an unprecedented setback

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The Independent Online

Jose Manuel Barroso took over as European Commission president last November amid a political crisis. His job has not got easier. Last night's vote in France is the start of a period of unprecedented uncertainty within the European Union.

Jose Manuel Barroso took over as European Commission president last November amid a political crisis. His job has not got easier. Last night's vote in France is the start of a period of unprecedented uncertainty within the European Union.

Never before has a founder member of the club, or such a large, important country, delivered such a devastating blow to the European project.

Not only has France derailed carefully laid plans for reform, it has also revealed the depth of divisions about the EU's direction.

Of course Mr Barroso did not put it like that when he gave his reaction last night. Together with Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, which holds the EU presidency, and the French President, Jacques Chirac, he insisted that ratification must continue in other countries despite the French vote.

"Nine member states, representing almost half [49 per cent] of the European population have already ratified the constitutional treaty," Mr Barroso said. "We can't just take the views of one or two countries." But that statement was made in the knowledge that there is a referendum in the Netherlands in two days and that an admission of defeat would destroy any, slim, hopes of success there.

Like the French EU commissioner, Jacques Barrot, whose mood combined anger and despair last night, Mr Barroso says he wants to stick to the rules: that all member states should continue with the process, then review the results.

Even Britain's commissioner, Peter Mandelson, hinted strongly that a British referendum may never take place. "If there is a constitution I'm sure it will be put to the British people," he said.

Neither Mr Barroso nor Mr Juncker ­ who insisted the constitution is "not dead" ­ were able to explain how they intend to persuade France to approve a treaty which, to enter into force, must be ratified by all 25 EU nations.

EU leaders meet in Brussels on 16 June for a routine summit which will now become a crisis meeting. If, as seems almost inevitable, the Dutch have rejected the treaty, the constitution will effectively be dead. "Yes" campaigners in more Eurosceptical countries, such as the UK, the Czech Republic and Poland, already facing an uphill battle.

Mr Barroso would be wise to help bury the constitution as quietly as he can because EU leaders find themselves in a terrible situation. Without a pledge to re-run the "yes" vote in France, other referendums will be impossible to win. But any concessions to the French will provoke a reaction in countries that face referendums. If these go ahead there are certain to be more "no" votes. Efforts are likely to begin to see what could be salvaged.

Two options remain, the first is to try to renegotiate a more limited treaty incorporating many of the technical changes from the constitution. That may be hard since the constitution was a package and unravelling it may lead to a dead end. The other is to put into place some innovations for which there is wide consensus that may not require treaty change ­ creation of an EU foreign minister and a European diplomatic service.

But France may conclude that yesterday's vote was against an enlarged, economically liberal EU, and try to press ahead with a core Europe with key allies. Little wonder that among Mr Barroso's appeals last night was one for a period of reflection.

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