Leading article: First impressions can be misleading

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The Independent Online

In an article in today's paper, the former French President, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, gives his verdict on the EU Reform Treaty – to be known, after the successful summit meeting 10 days ago, as the Treaty of Lisbon. The thrust of his argument is that the new treaty diverges little in terms of content from the doomed Constitution; the differences are mainly in approach. "When men and women with sweeping ambitions for Europe decide to make use of this treaty," he concludes, "they will be able to rekindle from the ashes of today the flame of a United Europe".

Which, of course, is the very last thing that Gordon Brown and his ministers want to hear. Mr Brown has built his whole justification for not holding a referendum on the argument that the new treaty is quite a different creature from the Constitution rejected by the French and Dutch in 2005. An insistence that its content is virtually identical would be profoundly unhelpful to the Prime Minister's cause and bolster the Conservatives' calls for a referendum.

Initial impressions, however, can be deceptive. First of all, M. Giscard is hardly an objective observer. As chairman of the convention that drew up the ill-fated constitutional treaty, he has an interest in its survival. The European project is a large part of his political legacy; understandably, he does not want it to see it buried.

Second, M. Giscard's remarks are addressed as much to his compatriots as to the British. And here any politician who tries to address the two audiences faces a dilemma. British Eurosceptics see both versions of the treaty as a stepping-stone to a European super-state. They saw, and still see, a referendum as an opportunity to vote "No". Many of France's "No" voters, however, saw the treaty as a sell-out to British free-marketeers and Eurosceptics. The French wanted more Europe, not less. To them, M. Giscard's article is by way of reassurance that the institutional reforms of the earlier treaty have not been lost.

But even as he stresses the similarities between the two documents – and naturally expresses a preference for the one drafted by his convention – M. Giscard throws Mr Brown a lifeline. He stresses, with undisguised frustration, the importance of Britain's opt-outs, so confirming that at Lisbon the Prime Minister successfully defended those "red lines".

We share the former French President's frustration, and regret that, in order to fend off renewed calls for a referendum, Mr Brown is "selling" the treaty on the basis of opt-outs rather than opt-ins. It is not necessary to share the former French President's vision of Europe in every detail to believe it is high time that Britain ceased to be the EU's odd man out.