Tuesday, May 31, 2005

BRUSSELS — The European Union scrambled yesterday to pick up the pieces after a devastating French “no” to the new EU constitution — and braced for a Dutch vote that could deal a killer blow to its long-cherished integration blueprint.

EU leaders called for a “pause for reflection” as opinion polls showed that Dutch voters will probably follow those in France, who voted by some 55 percent to 45 percent Sunday to reject the proposed European constitution.

A snap poll yesterday showed the Dutch “no” camp had been strengthened by the French outcome, with 59 percent now planning to reject the constitution.

“The chance of a majority voting for the constitution in the Netherlands has become very slim,” said a spokesman for the Maurice de Hond institute, which carried out the study.

Andre Rouwvoet, of the Protestant ChristenUnie, which has three seats in the 150-seat parliament, saw the French “no” as a promising sign.

“This is the first time I am enthusiastic about a French revolution,” he said. “This constitution has no soul. … They did not want to put a reference to the European Judeo-Christian tradition in. … This is a rewriting of history of sorts.”

The referendum will be the first in the Netherlands in more than 200 years, and many voters see it as their first opportunity to give their opinion about the development and pace of European integration.

The polls show a striking disparity between public opinion and that of elected politicians. Some 80 percent of Dutch members of parliament support the text.

Unlike the French referendum, the Dutch one is merely consultative, but the main parliamentary groups have said they will take the results into account if voter turnout exceeds 30 percent.

In Brussels, the European Commission, which serves as the EU’s executive arm, said it “accepts” the decision of the French people, but appeared to be trying to weather this week’s developments, waiting for the bloc’s leaders to meet in mid-June to discuss what went wrong.

“It’s important to analyze what happened in France. It’s important to understand the message. It’s important to understand it in all its detail,” said commission spokeswoman Francoise Le Bail.

A June 16-17 summit is certain to become a crisis meeting, as the leaders try to stop the “no” momentum ahead of other referendums this year in Luxembourg, Denmark and Portugal.

Nine countries, accounting for almost half the EU’s population, have ratified the treaty, but all the members have to approve it for the constitution to gain the force of law.

Mrs. Le Bail pointed out that part of the text, Declaration 30, allows for leaders to discuss how to proceed if at least three-quarters of the union’s 25 members ratify it.

That aside, she said, the EU can still function as it does now using the Nice Treaty.

The constitution’s authors said it is aimed at giving the EU a framework for streamlined decision making after its enlargement a year ago to include 10 mostly ex-communist Central and Eastern European countries. It also aims to boost the EU’s profile with a president and foreign minister.

The question now for officials in Brussels is to see what can be salvaged.

In Paris, President Jacques Chirac, in an address to the nation after the referendum, implicitly urged his European partners to move ahead with the project, making tomorrow’s referendum in the Netherlands more crucial than ever.

An aide said Mr. Chirac would announce today “his decisions concerning the government” — diplomatic speak for a change in government, with unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin the first likely victim.

Mr. Chirac met with Mr. Raffarin yesterday, as well as with Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie and ruling-party leader Nicolas Sarkozy — all seen as possible replacements.

In London, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the French result “raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe.” Prime Minister Tony Blair, on vacation in Italy, said it was too early to decide whether Britain would hold a promised referendum.

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