Britain has made it harder for the French to vote 'yes'

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The French Foreign Minister, in an interview with this newspaper, has tried to be upbeat about the prospects for a "yes" when France votes on the European Union's constitution next month. Despite his best efforts, however, confidence did not exactly shine through. We hope that any sense of foreboding we detect in his caution proves unfounded. A French "no" would, as Michel Barnier contends, kill the constitution outright and provoke a crisis within the EU. It would also bestow undue significance on a document that is far more an exercise in codification than a grab for more centralised power. The EU does not deserve to suffer such a setback so soon after its successful expansion.

The French Foreign Minister, in an interview with this newspaper, has tried to be upbeat about the prospects for a "yes" when France votes on the European Union's constitution next month. Despite his best efforts, however, confidence did not exactly shine through. We hope that any sense of foreboding we detect in his caution proves unfounded. A French "no" would, as Michel Barnier contends, kill the constitution outright and provoke a crisis within the EU. It would also bestow undue significance on a document that is far more an exercise in codification than a grab for more centralised power. The EU does not deserve to suffer such a setback so soon after its successful expansion.

We need to admit, however, that it is our own professedly pro-Europe government that is partly responsible for France's predicament. Had the Prime Minister not executed his famous U-turn on a referendum in order to keep the general election Europe-free, the pressure in France for a similar vote would have been less. Perversely, it is also our own government's stated satisfaction with the treaty that helped to raise concern among the French. If the British government - seen as more jealous of its sovereignty, more market-oriented, and less concerned about social legislation than the French - is happy with the treaty, then surely too many concessions must have been made by the French.

Where the future of the EU constitution is concerned, Britain and France now find themselves locked in a bizarre dilemma: the more British ministers argue that their view of Europe's future has prevailed, the more likely France is to vote "no" - and vice versa. This should suggest, of course, that the treaty has been correctly judged. But that is not how it will look to jittery ministers on either side.

According to one theory, some British officials favoured an early "no" vote from a small EU country that would pre-empt the need for a referendum here. A country other than Britain would thus take the blame for delaying the streamlining of the EU without sabotaging the whole project. They wanted the best of both worlds: a French rejection would be the worst.

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