There's life in the European dream yet

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Europe has been conspicuous by its absence in this election campaign. The issue raised its head briefly this week when Tony Blair appeared to renounce his ambition to take Britain into the eurozone. But this failed to make any sort of impact. And apart from that, Europe has been the dog that has stubbornly refused to bark.

Europe has been conspicuous by its absence in this election campaign. The issue raised its head briefly this week when Tony Blair appeared to renounce his ambition to take Britain into the eurozone. But this failed to make any sort of impact. And apart from that, Europe has been the dog that has stubbornly refused to bark.

It all makes for quite a contrast with the situation on the other side of the channel. France has been engrossed in Europe for months, as it prepares for its referendum on the EU constitution to be held in four weeks' time. The issue has been so dominant because there is a strong possibility that French voters might reject it.

This has - understandably -panicked the French political establishment. President Chirac has mounted a desperate campaign to shift the polls in favour of his Government's policy. Jacques Delors, the former head of the European Commission, has appeared on French television to back the constitution. The crisis has even prompted the former socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, to return to the political fray. They all recognise that a "no" vote would undermine France's traditional claims to leadership within the EU - possibly fatally.

It is assumed that a French rejection of the constitution would be a welcome relief to our own Prime Minister, as it would probably absolve him of the responsibility of fighting an even more tricky referendum here. But such a high-profile rejection would inevitably raise more problems for Mr Blair than it solves.

And it is important to remember that it is not in Britain's interests for the French to vote "no". If France, one of the founding members of the European Union, were to reject the constitution, it could set the entire European project back by decades. The constitution itself is by no means a perfect document. But the measures to streamline the decision-making procedures within the union are badly needed. And the constitution will help the EU to liberalise its markets and compete internationally.

It would be wrong to despair yet. There is still enough time for the French electorate to recognise where its best interests lie. And as the successful accession of 10 new countries into the union a year ago demonstrates, there is still considerable life left in the European dream.

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