5 May 2005 Edition
French referendum on a knife edge
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
Spain has done it, Germany is weeks away and five other EU states have signed up, France is in the throes of a debate, yet in little Ireland we can't even agree the date to put our toe in the water and start talking about it, and people are beginning to notice. Last week Francoise Le Bail, an EU Commission spokesperson said that the Irish Government must hold a referendum on the EU constitution even if France votes no in its poll at the end of the month.
Yet for now, Bertie Ahern and his cabinet colleagues are holding their counsel on any potential referendum dates. They, like many of their other EU governmental compatriots, are playing politics when it comes to the EU. In fact, when you pull together the strands of the different EU-related issues permeating the news this week, you see that contradictions abound when it comes to the politics of the EU.
Take, for example, the coming French referendum on the EU Constitution, now just weeks away. Unlike the scenario last January in Spain, when the majority of voters stayed home, this campaign has gripped France as up until this week, consecutive polls were showing a narrow majority against ratifying the new Constitution.
In a poll crazy debate (this week it has hit 26 polls) 23 had shown a slim majority for the No campaign. However, in the last week, polls in Le Monde, Le Figaro and Le Parisien all showed small majorities in favour of ratifying.
Ten EU countries are to hold referendums. Spain did it in January. Others to come are France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Portugal, Ireland, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic. Of the remaining EU members, Greece, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy have all ratified the treaty with votes in parliament.
Meanwhile, in Sweden pressure is growing for a referendum. The Swedish Green and Left parties want a referendum but the ruling Social Democratic Party doesn't favour a poll. Now, members are pressing for a vote within the party on whether the government should have a poll or not.
In Germany last week, the state's highest court rejected an application for a referendum by Peter Gauweiler, a Christian Social Union party parliament member. Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder agreed last week compromises with representatives of Germany's regional assemblies that they would have more input into EU decision making. The German parliament will then complete its ratification process two days before the French go to the polls.
So no popular vote in Germany for the EU treaty, but in neighbouring France all the stops are being pulled out in an increasingly tense and gripping referendum battle. In the last week, both former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and current French President Jacques Chirac have made strategic inputs into the debate.
Jospin, who withdrew from public life after his defeat in the 2002 presidential election, found time for his first TV appearance in three years. He played the historical card in his plea for a yes vote. He spoke of "two terrifying world wars. Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, the holocaust" etc, as reasons why French voters should vote Yes. Voting against the Constitution would "punish France and punish Europe".
Some of the more incredible reasons for voting Yes have been made by both Chirac and Jospin, including the claim that the maiden flight of the new Airbus 380 would not have been possible without the EU.
Yesterday, Chirac turned to the Germans in his campaign for a Yes vote on 29 May. In this context, it was some of Germany's more internationally known thinkers and writers, including, Jurgen Habermas, Gunter Grass and Wolf Bierman. They were all signatories to a letter published in Le Monde appealing for a Yes vote.
They declare: "A No would be to surrender reason and betrayal by France, that great country of the Enlightenment, of its own ideals" The letter goes on: "We owe it to the million of victims of our wars and our dictatorships."
Underpinning the increasingly fraught EU Constitution debate in France is what would the consequences be if France voted No. Would the other EU states continue their ratification process? Would there be new negotiations on the treaty? For now, there are mixed signals coming out of the EU.
EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini has said that a French No vote would mean a reopening of negotiations, while a British No vote wouldn't. Where does that leave Ireland? It's clear that we don't matter in the scheme of EU politics, which is as good a reason for a No vote as any rational voter would need. Why sign up for a constitution where your voice and your opinions clearly don't matter? Watch this space.