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British Plan for EU Referendum Now Uncertain

Blair hints a vote may be deferred to allow a 'period of reflection' -- part of the fallout from France's rejection of the proposed constitution.

June 01, 2005|John Daniszewski and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

LONDON — Britain's plan to hold a referendum on the proposed European Union constitution looked in doubt Tuesday, as Europeans sought to come to grips with French voters' rejection of the blueprint to further integrate the continent.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the French "no" on Sunday posed a profound question about the future of Europe, and he hinted strongly that his government's plan for a referendum would be put on hold to allow a "period of reflection."

Blair suggested that the disillusionment with European integration seen in many countries stemmed from deep disagreement on the EU's economic direction, with some countries wanting to cling to strict government regulation and social-welfare guarantees and others seeking freer markets and greater liberalization.

"What emerges so strongly ... is this deep, profound underlying anxiety that people in Europe have about how the economy of Europe

A way forward, he said, might be found in a pan-European debate on how the continent can best create jobs and a more competitive economy.

Britain had planned to make economic liberalization a major theme when it assumes the rotating EU presidency in July. But resistance from France and other countries is expected to be high.

The fear among French voters that they would lose jobs to workers from lower-wage EU countries was believed to be one of the main reasons for their rejection of the constitution.

With voters in the Netherlands also expected to vote down the constitution in a referendum today, a decisive British move to abandon a public vote would put the proposed charter into deep hibernation, if not kill it entirely.

The constitution can take effect only with the unanimous support of the EU's 25 member states. Nine have already approved it.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he would make a statement in Parliament on Monday concerning the government's decision on a referendum. But the final decision won't come until after an EU summit in Brussels in mid-June, the Daily Telegraph reported, quoting an unnamed government source. That would suggest Britain doesn't want to appear to be acting on its own in declaring the document dead.

Privately, many politicians in Blair's Labor Party were relieved by the French vote. They acknowledged that a referendum would have been an uphill challenge because the British public -- perhaps even more than the French -- has been skeptical of the proposal, which many believe would cede too much national sovereignty to the EU.

"Let us speak frankly. There is going to be no British referendum" on the European constitution, former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote in the Evening Standard.

When British ministers talk about needing a period of reflection, he said, "they really mean time for the European Union collectively to admit that the game is up."

He urged Blair instead to use Britain's upcoming EU presidency to insist that the organization deliver practical benefits to gain the public's confidence, including more jobs, trade and cross-border crime fighting.

Former Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, speaking to the BBC, said a clear mandate to veto the EU constitution had been established.

He criticized some European leaders for suggesting that the ratification process could continue.

"Anyone who seeks to escape from [the voters' decision] will simply emphasize the false claims from some of the 'no' sections that Europe isn't listening, Europe doesn't care about them, Europe supersedes them, and it will compound the very problems that produced much, not all, of the 'no' vote in France," said Kinnock, a former European commissioner. "Referendums produce results, and results have got to be lived with."

Amid the concern and criticism provoked by the French vote, there are many who greeted the results with a certain relish.

France's position as a political and economic leader of the EU, along with Germany, has inspired resentment. Paris had been accused of hypocrisy and highhandedness in recent years.

Critics said the French had preached EU solidarity while ignoring its rules on such difficult matters as the size of federal budget deficits.

Moreover, the regal style of French President Jacques Chirac has not endeared him to some of his fellow European leaders. The 72-year-old Chirac is one of the West's senior statesmen and is not shy about expressing his opinions.

Chirac has clashed head-on with Blair, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, a trio that often teamed up to resist Franco-German dominance and, in 2003, opposed Paris and Berlin in supporting the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

During the lead-up to the invasion, Chirac also rankled Central and Eastern European states, newcomers to the EU, by snapping that they had "missed an opportunity to keep their mouths shut" when they expressed support for the United States.

As a result, Chirac's calamitous loss Sunday unleashed a cascade of invective against him and his country.

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