A French No would be best

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The death of the notion that support for the European project requires support for every European initiative is a mark not of that project’s failure but of its maturity. This week, John discusses the French referendum on the EU constitution.

Charcuterie, lapin aux herbes, dessert ou fromage, reduced from €18 to €16. In a comic application of the thesis that the route to a Frenchman’s heart is through his stomach, the European Union will this week be asked to give approval to Jacques Chirac’s plan to reduce value added tax on lunch. The patron of my favourite country restaurant could knock €2 off the price of his menu and still retain a few cents for himself. The plan has been around for years but suddenly seems urgent: France’s referendum on the European constitutional treaty is less than three weeks away.

I doubt if this gesture will sway the grumpy villagers. The most likely result on May 29 is that a Yes vote from the Paris region will just offset discontent in rural France, but it looks close. Yet a defeat for the constitution in France would probably be the best outcome for Europe. It would certainly be the best outcome for Britain.

Supporters of the constitution have claimed their numbers will grow when there is a proper opportunity to explain it. French experience shows the opposite to be true. It is hard to find the right slogans. “It’s not as bad as the British tabloid press says.” “Although its motivating sentiment is to increase the power of central European institutions, it doesn’t actually do so.” “It is a delicately crafted political compromise.” All these things are true, but it is hard to see why they should persuade anyone to vote Yes.

The – possibly fatal – conceit was to dress up necessary reforms of EU institutions in the guise of a constitution, with a status comparable to that of the document defining the United States of America. There is an exciting project of delineating the functions and objectives of an effective transnational organisation, no less exciting than the debate in Philadelphia in 1787 that set out the nature of modern government and a federal state. But if Europe has its Madisons and Hamiltons they were not in the room when the present document was written.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights sounds, and is, the constitution’s centrepiece, but the charter is either purely rhetorical, or a growing influence on the jurisprudence of the EU, depending on whom you ask and what they think you wish to hear. Such ambiguities are endemic. If you want neo-liberal sentiments, you can find them; if you want examples of dirigisme, you can find them too. The attempt to provide something for everyone has provided something for everyone to dislike. Supporters are saddled with these contradictions. The document they must defend is at best second rate.

Opinion surveys repeatedly show that the European public is much more favourably disposed to the project of European integration than to the institutions of the EU. And with reason. Members of the European parliament found a moment away from campaigning for the constitution to reject a proposal that their travel expenses should be limited to what they actually spend. If Mr Chirac gets his way, they can also look forward to lower VAT in Strasbourg’s excellent restaurants. The European project is better than many of its supporters.

And that is why the French Yes campaign has largely abandoned the constitution and emphasised the benefits of the EU itself, with posters proclaiming “Europe deserves Yes”. But the vote in France, like the vote that will immediately follow in the Netherlands, is about the question on the ballot paper. A No will be a No to the constitution, not to Europe. A future document would then have to resolve the nature of the EU, rather than attempt to accommodate every possible view of it. The death of the notion that support for the European project requires support for every European initiative is a mark not of that project’s failure but of its maturity.

The British position is different because much of the British public is not yet reconciled to the EU. The danger is that the British debate is also polarised around support or opposition to the Union itself, and the vote is lost. French voters can spare us that all too likely outcome. That is why I will encourage my fellow diners to vote No, and my compatriots to vote Yes – and hope that if the former take my advice, the latter will not have to.

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