France warns of crisis on EU constitution

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The Independent Online

A "no" vote in France's referendum on the European constitution next month would kill off the treaty and provoke a "crisis" for the EU, the country's Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, has warned.

A "no" vote in France's referendum on the European constitution next month would kill off the treaty and provoke a "crisis" for the EU, the country's Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, has warned.

M. Barnier said the French referendum campaign had been dragged off course by confusion, fears over globalisation and a lack of clarity over Europe's direction. But, in an interview with The Independent, he insisted there is "no Plan B" in the event of a "no" vote which, he said, would cause a type of institutional "breakdown".

One of those who helped draw up the constitution, M. Barnier said he takes seriously a series of opinion polls predicting a "no", though he believes supporters of the text will ultimately prevail.

His comments illustrate how the constitution has been caught in the crossfire of the EU's ideological battle between advocates of a Blairite, free-market path, and those wanting to preserve Europe's traditions of strong social protection.

Asked to explain recent surveys predicting a "no", the minister cited "social and economic worries in France, fears associated with Turkey [which is due to open EU membership talks] and, in effect, a lack of understanding about the way in which Europe is moving.

He added there was "a feeling that Europe is not providing enough protection against the risks of globalisation".

While the EU is a buffer against the perils of a globalised economy, M. Barnier argued Europe "could operate better, in a more democratic manner, a more political manner, and which could be explained better to people."

Across France much of the opposition to the constitution has come from the left, parts of which see it as a triumph for Blairite, Anglo-Saxon, liberalising values at the expense of the European social model.

One main symbol - ironically not connected to the constitution - has been a proposed directive to open services to competition, something many fear would allow firms from eastern Europe to undercut French companies.

The French Foreign Minister said it was normal to see arguments in Brussels between ultra-liberals and defenders of the European social model, but added: "I think that what has happened in several countries shows that we must be careful. The Commission has understood this well because it has accepted the need to send the services directive back to the drawing board."

All countries need to ratify the constitution for it to come into force, and M. Barnier rejected suggestions that elements of it might be salvaged by an inner core of the EU, led by France and Germany.

"If there is no constitution, we stay with the existing system which is unsatisfactory," he said. This, he added, would be "a type of breakdown like when a boat breaks down. A problem, a crisis, but there is no Plan B. It would be necessary to take time to reflect. But, as far as France is concerned, I don't see this outcome, frankly."

The campaign, he said, has only just begun in France "amid a certain amount of confusion", but there remains time "to target the debate on the only question which is being asked on 29 May: yes or no to the European constitution? Do we need this text?" As Foreign Minister, M. Barnier has forged good relations with his German and British counterparts, working with both to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

He welcomed the fact that "British engagement in Europe is progressively becoming much more clear and proactive".

But on the British budget rebate - the future of which will be negotiated in June - there is no meeting of minds with the UK. M. Barnier argued: "We simply believe, today, that the British rebate, this cheque that was conceived in another epoch, does not correspond to a fair breakdown. And we, ourselves, pay 30 per cent which is not normal. Therefore, this issue must be put on the table when we discuss the European budget.

He added: "To reach a fair share-out of the effort, everyone must make an effort. The English as well as the others." By contrast, M. Barnier said a deal that protects spending on the Common Agricultural Policy - from which France is a main beneficiary - should not be called into question.

Meanwhile, he rejected British Conservative Party plans to try to negotiate an exit from the Common Fisheries Policy. He argued: "One cannot accept unpicking or reworking the European policies that bind Europe. How can one imagine having, once more, national policies in areas like fisheries when, by definition, we need common management of the seas, of quotas of maritime reserves?"