EU's draft constitution infects France with a dose of Euroscepticism

Click to follow
The Independent Online

France is suffering an attack of the European jitters, just as it prepares to play a pivotal role in the final negotiations on a new constitution for the European Union.

A surge of Euroscepticism, on both the left and the right, has alarmed French pro-Europeans, who fear that they could lose a referendum to ratify the European constitution, if one is called next year.

For the time being, the draft constitution - drawn up under the chairmanship of the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing - is mostly tearing apart the Socialists and the moderate French left. But the proposals to cede some powers to Brussels, and nagging fears that France will lose its dominant position when the EU expands to the east, have rekindled suspicion of Europe on the moderate French right.

The Socialists, the main party of opposition, who were founded by the fiercely pro- European late president Françcois Mitterrand, are threatened with outright schism. Radical socialists, and even some moderate ones, see the draft as a sellout to America and extremist capitalism. They complain that it pays too much obeisance to markets and free trade and not enough to public services and political control.

On the centre right, there has been a resurgence of Gaullist fears that M. Giscard's vision of an enlarged and streamlined Europe will damage France's sovereignty.

French pro-Europeans - including, it is said, M. Giscard - place part of the blame on Pre- sident Chirac and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Prime Minister.

They say the President has done nothing to sell the need for European enlargement and changes in the way that the EU is governed. Worse, they say, M. Raffarin has sought to distract from his economic problems by conjuring up the spectre of a France menaced by arrogant and out-of-touch Eurocrats.

Some diplomats suggest the possibility that a new EU constitution might by rejected by the French will help Paris to get its way at the inter- governmental conference on EU reform from Saturday.

Other commentators suggest there is a genuine crisis, partly because the enlargement to the east threatens France's sense of European identity. With the far left and far right holding up to 25 per cent of the vote, any further doubts could make the referendum on the draft a dangerous lottery. Even pro-Europeans agree that the alternative - a vote by the houses of parliament - would leave the new institutions open to the charge that they lack legitimacy.

SPAIN AND POLAND, MEMBERS OF THE AWKWARD SQUAD

Not only is Spain renowned for being the leader of the EU's awkward squad, it seems proud of its status. It is not Eurosceptic but takes a notoriously tough stand in negotiations. In Spain, the EU's popularity is based partly on the huge subsidies it receives, not just for its farmers but in direct aid to poorer regions. And these are defended to the hilt in negotiations, with other issues taken hostage if necessary.

Poland is the biggest of the 10 countries that will join the EU next year, and, by some way, the brashest. It is Atlanticist in outlook and, therefore, outspoken on foreign policy, backing the US in Iraq. Given Poland's size, geography and history, it is determined to flex its muscle and did not take kindly to being advised to keep quiet about Iraq by the French president, Jacques Chirac. It also wants the same rights as existing EU member states.

Comments