M. Chirac's pain is not necessarily Britain's gain

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There was despondency among Europhiles across the Continent yesterday, as the implications of the French vote sank in. France's hefty rejection of the European constitutional treaty leaves little prospect that what was intended as a landmark document will, or can, be revived. Only propriety and common courtesy may explain why national leaders hesitated to write off the whole enterprise at once. With the Netherlands so close to voting, it probably seemed wrong to declare the treaty already dead and buried. Better to save the fatalism until the Dutch had made their voice heard - not that the result is expected to be different.

There was despondency among Europhiles across the Continent yesterday, as the implications of the French vote sank in. France's hefty rejection of the European constitutional treaty leaves little prospect that what was intended as a landmark document will, or can, be revived. Only propriety and common courtesy may explain why national leaders hesitated to write off the whole enterprise at once. With the Netherlands so close to voting, it probably seemed wrong to declare the treaty already dead and buried. Better to save the fatalism until the Dutch had made their voice heard - not that the result is expected to be different.

As so often in matters European, however, Britain is the exception. And while the political landscape may have been transformed by the French result, the transformation has been less substantial here - and, to the Government in the short term, more welcome - than across the Channel.

Most obviously, France's rejection of the treaty makes redundant the referendum the Prime Minister had been pressured into holding. While neither Jack Straw nor Tony Blair went so far as to confirm that there would now be no referendum, they were conspicuously less certain than they had been before. Not having to hold a referendum simplifies the Government's life no end.

Not only is consulting the electorate a risky proposition, the likelihood is that the discussion would turn into an even more ill-tempered and divisive debate than in France. All the old fears and prejudices about Europe and "abroad" would be on show, our often fractious relations with our neighbours would deteriorate further. And the result would probably - though not necessarily - be a defeat that would dash Mr Blair's hopes of finally reconciling Britain and Europe.

Together, the French No vote and the indefinite postponement of a British referendum could even simplify the British presidency of the EU that starts in July. It was not a British "No" that scuppered the treaty; Mr Blair will have no need to apologise. The French result could also lower expectations and makes it more difficult to dismiss Britain's presidency as a failure.

In the longer term, however, things become more complicated for Mr Blair, both on the domestic front and in the European arena. If there is to be no referendum in Britain, then there is no natural time for the Prime Minister to honour his promise to leave office. The infighting in the Labour Party, which he quelled immediately after the election, will restart with renewed energy. There is the prospect, too, of a more combative Tory party. As Kenneth Clarke has observed, it is likely that Europe will not now figure prominently in the leadership campaign, which could improve his own chances, or at least encourage a wider range of candidates.

While the "period of reflection" announced by President Chirac may see Mr Blair safely through the six months of Britain's EU presidency, it also holds the danger of further strife. At present, British ministers are presenting the French "No" as a rejection of the very aspects of the EU that concern them. But the "No" was largely a rejection of those features of the treaty that British ministers most prize: the looser union of sovereign states, the primacy of the free market; deregulation and competition. Underlying France's rejection were also doubts about the EU's rapid expansion, fears of imported cheap labour and worries about the accession of Turkey. Once these differences are aired, the gap between the British Government's vision of Europe, and that of France - among others - will be manifest. The constitutional treaty was designed and negotiated to smooth out these differences. In this, the French vote tells us, it failed.

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