Circumspect E.U. Turns To Dutch on Constitution

Members of the Socialist Party react at their headquarters in Paris on Sunday after French voters rejected the proposed European Union constitution.
Members of the Socialist Party react at their headquarters in Paris on Sunday after French voters rejected the proposed European Union constitution. (By Jerome Delay -- Associated Press)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

PARIS, May 30 -- European leaders on Monday held out hope that they could move forward with their decades-long drive to unify the continent under a single economic and political banner, but braced for a potentially fatal setback as Dutch voters threatened to join France in rejecting a proposed European constitution.

After initially vowing to press ahead despite the French defeat on Sunday, leaders at the European Union headquarters in Brussels said they would wait for the results of a popular referendum Wednesday in the Netherlands, where opinion polls show the constitution is in trouble. Officials said they would decide what to do next during a previously scheduled summit in the Belgian capital on June 16-17.

The French vote shook the government in Paris, where President Jacques Chirac was closeted in the Elysee Palace to consult with advisers on a planned cabinet shake-up. His staff issued a statement announcing that he would address the nation on television Tuesday night to reveal "decisions regarding the government."

In the aftermath of the 55 percent vote against the constitution, the palace declined to respond to French news reports that Chirac had decided to fire Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose aides cleared out their offices Monday in anticipation of such a move.

Negotiators settled last year on the language for the constitution, which is intended to create a uniform legal framework that would give broad power to the European central government on issues of foreign and domestic concern. Since then, countries have been deciding one by one whether to ratify the document.

As opinion polls indicted rejection of the referendum in France in the days leading up to the vote, some European leaders held out hope that the French could be pressured into trying again if they ended up as the lone holdouts. But with surveys showing that the Netherlands was also poised to vote no Wednesday, politicians supporting the constitution changed their tone and began talking about the necessity of respecting the wishes of the people.

In Brussels, leaders tried to soldier on but had trouble mustering much enthusiasm. "We cannot say the treaty is dead," said Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, even as he acknowledged that the defeat in France was a "serious problem" and offered no prescription for fixing it.

E.U. leaders said they had no alternative strategy drawn up if the constitution were not approved. Each of the union's 25 member nations must approve the constitution before it can take effect.

While Chirac stayed out of the spotlight, opponents of the constitution said drafters needed to rewrite it to win French support. "I'm European, but I want a strong, unified Europe," Laurent Fabius, a Socialist leader who broke with his party to fight the document, said on French television. "The constitution didn't do that."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for "a period of reflection" after the French vote. He said the debate had failed to take into account people's anxieties over how an expanded and more powerful European central government would affect job security, immigration and questions of national identity. He said the constitution was a "perfectly sensible set of rules to govern Europe" but added that there was "a bigger debate now in Europe."

Even countries that have ratified the measure -- nine so far -- harbored doubts that the French no vote could be overcome. "This is regrettable and will cause great challenges for Europe," said Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany, which approved the constitution in a parliamentary vote last week.

Chirac, meanwhile, ignored calls from the opposition to quit, but political analysts said his popularity was so low that it was unlikely he would revive a push to pass the constitution before his term ends in 2007.

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