French Referendum: Britain encouraged to 'do its duty': Warning from Brussels

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The Independent Online
BRUSSELS - Germany's senior European Commissioner issued a brusque demand last night to Britain to 'do its duty' by quickly ratifying the Maastricht treaty.

Reflecting the concern that Britain may not be able to ratify, Martin Bangemann, the Commission Vice-President who is responsible for the single European market, said: 'We solved a lot of Britain's problems at Maastricht; nobody was treated as specially as Britain was. Please now show the flag.' Quoting Lord Nelson, he added: 'Everyone must do his duty.'

The reaction of most officials was relief. Asked by a television interviewer to give his reaction to the referendum result, Jacques Delors began to read from a prepared text. 'I believe the French people should be thanked for France, for Europe, for democracy and for history,' he began. 'They have said yes to an important step forward of the European Community. I hope that the other member states which still have to ratify the treaty will give the same answer.'

Such was the relief and enthusiasm of the president of the European Commission that the interviewer was unable to stop him from continuing with his speech, which had been simultaneously issued in Brussels while Mr Delors was speaking from Paris. 'Let us find the inspiration and the force to overcome one of the greatest challenges facing our generation,' he concluded.

The president's colleagues, however, were more practical. Another senior EC official, Karel van Miert, last night warned that there remain grave doubts about whether the Government will be able to get the bill to ratify the treaty through the Commons this autumn.

Mr van Miert, the Belgian Vice-President of the European Commission, said that doubt about whether Parliament in London will pass the necessary legislation 'was there already' before last week, but warned that the political consequences of the pound's hasty exit from the exchange rate mechanism (ERM) has made things worse. 'After what's happened, the situation is even more difficult,' he said.

The narrowness of the French vote has reminded those at the top of the bureaucracy in Brussels what a daunting task they continue to face in convincing Europeans who are against the treaty to change their minds. That task was underlined by exit polls showing that of those who said 'yes' to the French referendum question, only 4 per cent had done so because of the treaty itself.

French ratification will give the Community 'a chance to move ahead', Mr van Miert suggested. But with a humility that has become common in Brussels only recently, he said Brussels realises it needs 'to do more, to explain more, and to look for opportunities to do so'.

Analysts say that the French result has ruled out any simple solutions to the Maastricht problem. Had the country voted 'no', officials acknowledge, the treaty would have had to be abandoned altogether, and the Community's 12 member governments would have been forced to start their thinking about European integration from scratch.

With France having voted in the treaty's favour, however, the austere simplicity of that outcome is now out of reach and all the hard questions return. The 'yes' leaves Jacques Delors in his job as Commission president in Brussels, and President Francois Mitterrand still weak in Paris. It leaves both the British and German governments facing hard questions about whether they, too, should reconsider their refusal to hold referendums. And it leaves finance ministers and central bankers with the job of picking up the pieces after last week's turbulence.

The Maastricht text says plainly that the treaty must be ratified by all the EC's members and cannot come into effect until the first day of the month after the last 'yes' comes in. Ireland and Luxembourg have already delivered; France's ability to do so still leaves eight countries to be accounted for. Although smaller and poorer countries can be relied on to follow the French lead with varying degrees of enthusiasm, all eyes in Brussels are now likely to turn to London to see how Conservative backbenchers react to the French vote.

Officials in Brussels recognise that passing the treaty in the British parliament will be hard enough. But if John Major succeeds in his resolve to pass the treaty 'line by line, clause by clause' through the Commons, a still great problem will remain: Denmark.

Denmark's vote against Maastricht in its June referendum cannot be pinned down to a single cause. Politicians from right and left have different, and often contradictory reasons, for having opposed it. As a result, the government of Poul Schluter, which has promised to put out a White Paper on what Denmark proposes to do, must walk a tightrope: it must propose enough changes to convince Danes voting in a second referendum that they are not being asked the same question twice, but it must try to make those changes small enough to prevent other EC countries from protesting.

If and when that second Danish referendum takes place, European leaders face another nail-biting night in front of their televisions.

One key effect of yesterday's vote is likely to be that the EC will be unable to admit new members as quickly as it had hoped. The Community's heads of government agreed at June's Lisbon summit to begin negotiations with Sweden, Switzerland, Austria and Finland only after Maastricht has been ratified.

Had France voted against it, that decision could have been torn up. But now the process of enlargement must remain on hold until the last 'yes' is in; and because the treaty will remain in doubt until then, Britain's desire to see informal negotiations with the applicants in the meantime is likely to be dashed.

With their newly diminished ambitions, the bureaucrats under Jacques Delors may come to look back for a moment. The Community originally hoped in 1957 to create a single market in 10 or 15 years; in fact, it took 35. At that rate, the monetary union enshrined in the Maastricht treaty would happen not at the end of the decade as hoped, but more likely around the year 2020.

(Photograph omitted)