Would we prefer it if the French voted 'no'?

The mess that is Europe isn't doing Britain any good, still less providing Blair with his exit line
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The Independent Online

Is the Labour government hoping that the French will vote against the new European constitution on 29 May and relieve Britain of the uncertain task of going for a referendum itself next year? Half the Cabinet clearly hope so, and most of the rest wouldn't seem too unhappy to see the whole issue off the agenda.

Is the Labour government hoping that the French will vote against the new European constitution on 29 May and relieve Britain of the uncertain task of going for a referendum itself next year? Half the Cabinet clearly hope so, and most of the rest wouldn't seem too unhappy to see the whole issue off the agenda.

Against that, there is the argument that Tony Blair sees a successful referendum on the EU constitution as the climax of his career, the achievement on which he can move on to retirement. And so Gordon Brown, who dearly wishes the EU to just go away and stop troubling the country, wants that too.

You can argue it both ways and the truth is probably that, at this stage, Mr Blair doesn't really know what he wants from France at the end of May. The simple reality of Europe today is that the Union is in a mess. You only have to look at this week's economic summit to see that. But it is a mess which doesn't appear to be doing Britain any good if it continues like this, still less provide its prime minister with his glorious exit line.

True, it is the British-style liberal market economics that are leading the charge at the moment in a continent stagnating at its centre. France and Germany remain at the core of Europe but it's an embattled core, besieged by the forces of the new entrants, the President of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso himself, and the economists all saying the future belongs to the radical freeing up of markets.

But a Europe in which the two biggest players see us as the embodiment of the forces wrecking their social cohesion doesn't altogether suit the British, and certainly doesn't suit a prime minister who would dearly love to play a leading role at the core of its decision making.

For that, the UK needs alliances with the major players. The efforts to try and lead a coalition of smaller forces that we have seen over the last decade or more, and the most recent strategy of alliance with Spain and Italy, have never really worked out so long as either France or Germany (and increasingly both) have opposed us, be it on budgets, farm subsidies or deregulation of the markets.

The problem for Blair is that, whilst he might seem on the right side of the argument so far as economic growth is concerned, he is losing the power play on the ground. He no longer has Spain as a key partner with the change of government there. Silvio Berlusconi is looking more and more a fringe, if not a totally irrelevant, contributor to European debate. The new entrants simply haven't the muscle or cohesion to determine policy as yet.

Even if they did, it cannot help Britain's long-term interests to see such an open split in the European Union. At the heart of the debate, there are very real interests and concerns that cannot simply be dismissed as an eruption of the "old" versus "new" Europe, free marketers against protectionists or any of the other slogans and epithets with which every argument within Europe is now clothed.

Take the liberalising measure for services over which so much blood was spilt in Brussels this week. In one sense, you can take it as a litmus test of the deregulation needed if Europe is ever to grow again. But in another sense, it strikes at the heart of the social compact that has held the inner core of Europe together since the Second World War, a symbol of the threats and insecurity which is so concerning the voters. On this, President Chirac was right. It would be better the measures be withdrawn entirely than to limp on with compromised measures achieving little in practice and bringing the process into further disrepute with the public.

The problem of Europe is not just an argument over the measures needed to break free the shackles of growth, it is that the public has lost faith with the whole ideal of Europe just as that confidence is needed more than ever now that Europe is expanding. And this loss of faith is just as apparent in Britain and the Czech Republic as it is for France and Sweden.

A failure of the French referendum certainly saves Blair the problem of convincing a eurosceptic British public of the value of a new constitution, but it also leaves the country in the middle of a crisis which it can do little to control, and which could do it as much damage as France.

Yet a successful French referendum followed by other countries helps the British government bringing up the rear; but it doesn't do much to give Britain as the tail-end Charlie any moral leadership in Europe, nor - as Blair himself seems to recognise - does it do much to settle the underlying ambiguity of Britain's approach to Europe.

On the whole, a "yes" vote in France is better for Blair. But for Europe? At this moment, the odds are probably still that there will be a narrow yes vote, just as there was when President Mitterrand tested the Maastricht Treaty before the French public.

For all the short-term crisis that it would cause, however, one has an awful feeling that it would be better to a call a halt to a process that is so dividing governments from their voters, and to take the enforced opportunity of a French "no" for the leadership to regather its forces and start again.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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