EU constitution can be rewritten, Delors admits

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The Independent Online

French Eurosceptics seized gleefully on a statement by the former European Commission president Jacques Delors that a "no" vote in this month's referendum would force a rewriting of the proposed European constitution.

French Eurosceptics seized gleefully on a statement by the former European Commission president Jacques Delors that a "no" vote in this month's referendum would force a rewriting of the proposed European constitution.

Leaders of the "yes" campaign have warned that rejection of the treaty would be a political train-wreck from which France - and the EU - would emerge permanently damaged.

M. Delors - although a vociferous supporter of the constitution - said that "a duty of truthfulness" forced him to admit that, if France voted no, there could be a "plan B" or renegotiation of the treaty.

But he went on to say that France would be "undoubtedly weakened" in the short term; that the EU would be plunged into confusion; and a rapid solution would be impossible.

His words were nevertheless seized on by opponents of the constitution, on both left and right. The government and the main opposition party, the Socialists, to which M. Delors belongs, have argued that a French rejection of the treaty would be terminal. Other countries would refuse to re-examine the text. The enlarged 25-nation EU would have to fall back on its existing treaties which would make it impossible to run the Brussels institutions, and defend important French interests, in the years ahead.

Opponents of the treaty said M. Delors had let the cat out of the bag. If French voters rejected the treaty, it could be renegotiated and, therefore, changed to take account of their concerns.

An opinion poll published yesterday indicated that a small majority of the French electorate now backs the treaty once again. But the margin in the poll, conducted for Le Monde, RTL radio and LCI television, remained very narrow - 52 per cent in favour, 48 per cent against.

Having reversed the powerful trend towards "no" two weeks ago, the "yes" camp had hoped to rebuild a commanding lead in the polls. It now appears that the French electorate - and especially voters of the centre-left - is split down the middle. The outcome may remain unpredictable until the referendum itself on Sunday 29 May.

The "yes" camp - including all mainstream parties of centre-left and centre-right and most newspapers - is having difficulty building a single, convincing line of argument. M. Delors' comments in an interview with Le Monde - or rather the interpretation placed on them by treaty opponents - will weaken one of the main planks in the "yes" platform.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the rising star of the French centre-right, has also added to the confusion in the pro-treaty ranks. He made a powerful speech on Thursday night, appealing for a "yes" vote, but used arguments which ran directly counter to the case made by President Jacques Chirac, his nominal ally.

M. Chirac, in two television appearances, has praised the constitution as the best means of defending the French and European "social model" from the harsh winds of "ultra-liberalism" (ie hard capitalism) blowing across the Atlantic and the Channel.

M. Chirac knows the "yes" camp will stand or fall on the final decision of Socialist and Green voters. Many of them have been persuaded by the arguments of the far left that the proposed constitution is a blueprint for wrecking public services and throwing open European borders to "globalism" and the relocation of jobs.

M. Sarkozy said France should, au contraire, welcome the treaty as a way of ditching a high-tax, interventionist social model which had failed and produced high unemployment. "The best social model is the one which provides jobs for everyone," he said. "In other words, it is no longer ours."

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