Adrian Hamilton: This isn't a crisis for Europe, merely a problem for its political leaders

The only country that could be said to be at ease with itself is Spain, which is the most pro-European
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The Independent Online

In one way the French political establishment ought to be pleased with the referendum result. Not since Dominique de Villepin - newly resurrected by President Chirac as French Prime Minister - said no to a UN second resolution on Iraq has the country been so at the centre of international events. The French electorate may not like the way the European Union is going, but by voting "no" to the constitution they have inspired a thousand commentaries declaring France's importance as the central engine of European development. Even the Dutch, whose negative opinion poll ratings were once the chief fear of Brussels, have now been sidelined.

In one way the French political establishment ought to be pleased with the referendum result. Not since Dominique de Villepin - newly resurrected by President Chirac as French Prime Minister - said no to a UN second resolution on Iraq has the country been so at the centre of international events. The French electorate may not like the way the European Union is going, but by voting "no" to the constitution they have inspired a thousand commentaries declaring France's importance as the central engine of European development. Even the Dutch, whose negative opinion poll ratings were once the chief fear of Brussels, have now been sidelined.

Which is unfair, on the Dutch at least. For their reasons for turning against Europe are quite different and just as valid as France's. Where the French antis put their objections in terms of preserving the Union's social core, the Dutch voters think of its liberal credentials. Both see threats to their vision, but the vision remains a very national one. Had the Germans been able to vote in a referendum themselves, and were the British to pursue theirs, you would no doubt get just as nationalistic and just as different interpretations of their fears and doubts.

That could be regarded as one reason for continuing the process of holding a referendum come what may. It would at least serve to draw out some of the hitherto unexpressed feelings about Europe. But with the constitution now a dead duck, there is little point, in Chris Patten's colourful analogy yesterday, in pursuing it round the farmyard.

What you cannot do at this stage, as Brussels and some of the constitution's more committed supporters seem to suggest, is to argue that the EU should carry on regardless, on the grounds that the "no" vote was so varied and contradictory in its reasoning that no valid lessons can be drawn. A democratic decision is a democratic decision. It's no good now declaring that France and the Netherlands were mad to have put it to the electorate in this way.

It's even less use saying that in voting no the public were answering a different question than they were asked. They were put the simple question of whether they approved of the new constitution, and they gave a decisive response. To say otherwise is to confirm the very kind of élitist, anti-democratic behaviour by Europe's leaders that the voters were rebelling against.

Half the problem in Europe has been that its politicians have consistently acted as if the Union was an administrative question that required no reference, let alone consultation, with their public. National politics have been treated as one thing, European decision-making as quite another.

It's little wonder that, given the opportunity, the public has said they don't feel that Europe is working for them. They were told it was an economic union and then, quietly and from the sidelines, the politicians started talking of constitutions and systems just as the economics were turning sour. The first rule of referendums is only hold them when the economic going is good and the government is popular - as in Spain, when it voted on the constitution earlier this year, or the East European countries when they held votes before they joined. To hold votes when not just one but both factors are against you is just bad politics.

When the leaders of the 25 members go to the summit in a fortnight's time, they should start by being honest. The constitution is dead. There is no point in trying to revive bits, however worthy and however free of criticism they were during the debates. The constitution was voted down as an entity and that's that.

Nor is there much point in pretending that the European train hasn't been stopped in its tracks. A great deal of what its leaders had blithely assumed was already timetabled is going to have to be cancelled for the time being, and that includes further enlargement, any major change in the presidency and the introduction of a foreign minister. The mandate isn't there.

But then the opponents of the constitution are equally dishonest in claiming the referendums as some major negation of the union as such. There was no indication in the French or Dutch debates that the idea of Europe as such was being negated, nor membership of the Union.

The voters were asked to approve the new constitutional treaty. Eight have done so without a referendum, one (Spain) has done so by popular vote, and two have given it the thumbs down. It requires unanimity, so it falls. The anti-Europeans can't make more of it than that, any more than the Europhiles can.

All the near-hysterical talk of crisis in the Union is no more than the expression of a Euro-sceptic wish that it were so. Europe can trundle on much as it has done so far, meeting its issues as they come up, whether they are to do with the environment, aid to Africa, trade with America or Turkish entry negotiations. They are all political decisions which will have to be taken politically.

In that sense, the crisis is not a systemic but a political one. Whatever the differences between France and the Netherlands, or any of the other countries, the one thing they all have in common is a loss of confidence in their own political leadership. The only major country which at the moment could be said to be at ease with itself is Spain, which is coincidentally the most pro-European. The rest are all going through, or have recently gone through, falling ratings for their government.

Over the next two years, much of the European leadership will have changed. Chancellor Schröder is seeking elections in the autumn, as will the Poles. Berlusconi will go to the electorate next year along with the Czechs, while the French will hold presidential elections in 2007. And few would predict Blair's continuance in office beyond the beginning of 2008 at the latest. By then, a whole new generation of leaders - Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy or whoever - will have come in.

In the meantime, Europe will tend to fall back on itself. Schröder will be far too concerned with his own re-election prospects to talk of Turkey, Chirac will be desperately concerned to make his new government work, and Tony Blair, for all the fanciful briefings from Number 10, simply doesn't have the authority or friends to regroup the European forces and propel them to pastures new.

It's not a prospect that is particularly appealing to those of us who would see Europe make the historic step of bringing in Turkey and developing its own foreign and security policies. It's certainly not a prospect that will delight those with visions of a Europe competing in power and independence with the US on one side and China on the other. But a period of pause is not a bad prospect. And it is, on the basis of this week's votes, what the people want.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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