Adrian Hamilton: So what happens if the French say no?

The political classes seem frozen like rabbits in the headlights of a careering French truck
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The Independent Online

No. Unbelievable though it may sound, there is no Plan B in the European Union to cope with a French "no" this weekend, if it happens, let alone a French followed immediately by a Dutch one. There are all sorts of ideas ranging from just carrying on regardless, and asking the French to vote again, to producing a sort of mini-treaty which can be accepted by all without the need for referendums.

But there is no detailed plan or accepted reaction. Like rabbits, the European political classes seems to have been frozen in the headlights of the careering French truck, unable to come to grips with the possibility of a result so shocking and, to them, so cataclysmic.

Nowhere is this more true than in Britain. Here it's not so much complacency by the political class as indifference. Aside from the two Clarkes (Ken and Charles), senior politicians have simply been unconcerned with the EU constitution and the prospects of its success or failure.

Europe barely raised its head during the election, not - as some would have it - because of some devious plot to avoid the subject for fear of the splits it could arouse, but because no one seemed in the least interested.

It's perverse. For, whether France votes yea or nay on Sunday - and it is still perfectly possible that the undecided voters will reluctantly swing behind a "yes" vote on the last day - Britain is going to have to help pick up the pieces, if for no other reason than our presidency of the European Union in the second half of the year and Blair's promise of a referendum here. If France votes "yes", Britain will be immediately thrown into a crisis of preparing for its own effort. If it votes no, we will have to start negotiating and chairing the meetings to work out the alternatives.

Much has been written about whether Tony Blair is hoping for a French "no". It's fairly pointless speculation. He will take things as they come. Most of his Cabinet - with the exception, apparently, of a sceptical Brown - think a referendum is unwinnable in Britain. But Blair does not, and may quite like the challenge.

In a curious way, a French and Dutch "no" (for if they both vote against, the constitution is dead whatever anyone says) could present the British Prime Minister with more difficult options. Britain's standing in Europe is not high at the moment. The smaller countries, especially in the east, are irritated by our refusal to negotiate on the rebate. The larger countries, especially a smarting French government if its referendum fails, will want to move rapidly to keep the momentum going, and will look on Britain as obstacle to their ambition, if not actually a cause of their woes.

Half the anti-constitution rhetoric in France, after all, was couched in anti-Anglo-Saxon and even anti-Blair terms. Far from relieving Britain of its European entanglement, a French "no" could actually propel Britain, and its European policies, straight back on centre-stage, with the triumphant anti-Europeans here eager to call foul at any hint of Britain's seeking a compromise position in Europe.

That says much about both the state of European and British feeling. A French "no" should not, of itself, prove much of crisis for Europe. The EU and its commission will continue to operate. The management problems posed by enlargement can be solved largely through administrative changes and - if necessary - a minor treaty bringing in new voting procedures, establishing an EU Foreign Ministry and so on.

Enlargement has already occurred with surprisingly little fuss. Further enlargement, particularly as far as Turkey is concerned, may be stopped in its track, but not the Union as it is. The most immediate troubles from a "no" vote will be on the immediate domestic politics of the countries concerned.

The unsettling aspect of the French and Dutch referendum campaigns is the gulf they have shown between the political leadership of Europe and its citizens, and the deep division of approach about what Europe means for its various members. The differences between "old" and "new", between the northern and the Mediterranean countries, between the large and small, are not new, but they have been thrown into fierce relief by the debate over the constitution. The fissures it has opened up will be hard to contain, whether the referendums in France and the Netherlands are lost or not.

Which is where Blair and Parliament's passivity seems so ill timed. For the British, the whole idea of a proposal called a constitution is a yawn. We don't go in for that kind of thing. Even for the French and certainly for the Dutch it would have been better if it had been given no such title.

But we do have a very direct interest in how the EU now develops - whether Turkey should join and enlargement proceed further, how a common defence and security policy is worked out, what is done about the environment and the reform of its budget and the liberalisation of its economics.

The French and Dutch referendums have shown no lack of public interest in these issues. Far from it. Whatever else they may do, they have already proved that the citizens of the Continent at least care passionately about what Europe means, or should mean, to them. If only Blair and his colleagues could take their hands out of their pockets and stop leaning against the side wall, perhaps they might find it could be true here as well.