- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

European crisis

Who would have expected coverage of the proposed new constitution for the European Union to dominate our front page for the better part of a week? Not me, unfortunately.

It had been clear for weeks that the constitution was likely to be voted down in last week’s French referendum, and probably would do no better three days later in the Netherlands.

It was also apparent that European leaders had no clear plan for dealing with the coming defeat. All this contributed to the kind of suspense that helps propel news stories onto the front page.

On the other hand, European voters time after time have backed away from dramatic action at the last minute, and there was a widespread suspicion they might do so again.

And even if it were defeated, no lives would be lost, no refugees sent to sea in small boats, no buildings destroyed or fortunes eviscerated. The worst-case scenario was that nothing would change.

State Department reporter Nicholas Kralev had been traveling in Europe the week before the French referendum, so we had him tack on a side trip to Paris to be in place for last Sunday’s vote.

Mr. Kralev had argued for staying a few more days to cover the Dutch referendum as well. I overruled him, guessing that the story would drop off the front page pretty quickly once the French outcome was known.

That turns out to have been a bad call. The story led our front page again on Tuesday, remained above the fold on Page 1 Wednesday, and led the paper again on Thursday after the Dutch rejected the proposed constitution.

Other papers thought it was a big deal, too. The Washington Post led with it Monday and Tuesday and had it back on the front page Thursday, even with the exposure of the identity of “Deep Throat.”

The New York Times likewise led with it Monday and Tuesday, and kept it above the fold on Page 1 for another two days.

Patching it together

We all were surprised, not so much by the rejection of the constitution, but by the emphatic way it was done. Both in France and the Netherlands, the constitution was voted down by larger margins than expected, and with such high turnouts as to leave no doubt about the message.

French President Jacques Chirac helped keep the story alive by firing his prime minister on Tuesday and replacing him with Dominique de Villepin, a man remembered by Washington readers for his sharp criticism of U.S. policies leading up to the war in Iraq.

Above all, perhaps, the story got “legs” because of the growing realization that European leaders simply had no idea of what to do next. Everybody loves a mystery, and here is one where not even the authors know the outcome.

With Mr. Kralev on his way home on Monday and our freelance correspondent in Paris unavailable, we were forced to scramble. Seeking a lead for Tuesday’s paper that looked ahead to the Dutch vote, we scoured the wire services — which were mainly focused on the tumult in France — and ended up patching together bits of several stories from the French news agency, Agence France-Presse.

On Wednesday, we led with American reaction to the de Villepin appointment, justifying a staff-bylined story by Washington-based reporter David R. Sands, filling out the bottom of the story with material from the wire agencies.

We got lucky on Wednesday. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the external-affairs commissioner for the European Commission, had on short notice scheduled a meeting with reporters and editors at The Washington Times’ office for that afternoon.

Her comments in reaction to the Dutch results, which were coming in as we met, again provided the justification for writing the story from Washington.

All in all, it was a respectable performance on a story that turned out to be bigger than I had expected. But it would have been better to have reporters in Paris and Amsterdam.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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