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Which leader has the right vision for Europe?

Article by Dr Greg Austin

September 15, 2006

The French president may be trying to make a link between the failed referendum in France and the UK rebate, but that wasn’t his tune before the vote. As long ago as February 2004, he attacked the rebate as “indefensible”, but in February this year felt that he could get still a positive result in a referendum.

He is clearly embarrassed by his defeat, and the grand political theatre going on in Brussels over the UK rebate and the 2007-13 EU budget has raised the stakes even higher for him. Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, has warned that failure to agree the budget this week will plunge the EU into a crisis of confidence.

But Mr Chirac, like Mr Barroso, may be miscalculating. They seem to assume, or at least try to imply, that a lack of popular French support for the EU has to be reversed by denying Britain its rebate. This is bad politics. The European project is not dead in France. The electorate did not vote against Europe per se and the budget rebate was always going to be on the agenda. The No camp’s slogan was “J’aime l’Europe et je vote non” (I love Europe but I am voting No).

In a poll on the day of the vote, 72 per cent said they were comfortable with the “pursuit of European integration”. More than 60 per cent of No voters explained their decision with reference to rising unemployment.

Mr Chirac is under fire from Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former president and architect of the constitution, who accused him of confusing voters and of using the referendum for his own ambitions in the 2007 presidential election.

The crisis widely trumpeted as afflicting the EU is actually a crisis afflicting France. Mr Barroso’s fear of a “contaminating” effect from the French vote on the EU as a whole will not be realised. The French are stamping their feet in a symbolic protest against a national government. What is in doubt is the French leadership, not the support of one of the EU’s founding states for the European project.

The contents and vision of the treaty need not be abandoned; rather, EU leaders have to change course on the ratification timetable and accept that the French vote was about other things. France still likes the European project, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum once Mr Chirac is out of office.

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