'Non' does not mean 'no'

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The Independent Online

Many French people today will be voting "No" in their referendum on the European Constitution, for reasons that seem misconceived. The idea that the constitution is a right-wing free-market plot is unsupported by the text itself. Others in France today, and the Netherlands on Wednesday, may vote "No" for reasons with which this newspaper profoundly disagrees. They are opposed to immigration and to Turkey's accession - neither of which is directly affected by the constitution.

Many French people today will be voting "No" in their referendum on the European Constitution, for reasons that seem misconceived. The idea that the constitution is a right-wing free-market plot is unsupported by the text itself. Others in France today, and the Netherlands on Wednesday, may vote "No" for reasons with which this newspaper profoundly disagrees. They are opposed to immigration and to Turkey's accession - neither of which is directly affected by the constitution.

Nevertheless, if the French and the Dutch vote "No", as seems likely, the result should be accepted as a triumph of democracy. The fault lies both with the quality of political leadership and with the document itself. It was the wrong venture at the wrong time. The important change in the EU was its enlargement from 15 to 25 members a year ago. Given that the EU has continued to function over the past year, the need for something called a constitution was not compelling.

As Glyn Morgan argues on page 25, the EU faces huge challenges - demographic, economic and geopolitical - and there is a powerful argument that a greater sense of common political purpose is needed to meet them. But that cannot be created by a closed convention of the European elite drafting thousands of words of consolidation, institutional reform and technical compromise. It requires leadership and Mr Blair, while he has helped Britain play a more constructive role in the new Europe, has - on the constitution - practised what Margaret Thatcher called followership. He has waited to see what would happen and played politics with the issue.

He has not wanted to encourage a debate in Britain about Europe's future, just as he has shied away from making the case for Britain adopting the euro - an early hope of his prime ministership that has now vanished beyond the horizon. His reasons are understandable in the short term, because he does not want to provoke the poisonous xenophobia of the right-wing press. But he must not use a French and Dutch "No" as an excuse to bury the issue here.

The advantage of his promise of a British referendum on the constitution is that it would have forced the pro-Europeans, including Mr Blair himself, to take their case to the people. Whether there is a British referendum or not, he must use the British presidency of the EU in the second half of this year as the chance to promote an idea of Europe more capable than is this elitist constitution of commanding the enthusiastic support of its peoples.

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