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French Vote Sends Europe Into Turmoil

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French Vote Sends Europe Into Turmoil

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French Vote Sends Europe Into Turmoil

French Vote Sends Europe Into Turmoil

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Melissa Block talks with Daniel Dombey, European diplomatic correspondent for the Financial Times, about the European constitution. French voters rejected the document in a referendum on Sunday. The European Union is now asking itself how to respond to this blow.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The EU Constitution comprises 448 articles and is hundreds of pages long. So how familiar were French voters with exactly what the constitution would do? We put that question to Financial Times correspondent Daniel Dombey.

Mr. DANIEL DOMBEY (The Financial Times): There has been polling done about that, and the answer was people weren't very familiar at all. People were voting more about the European Union of today and their fears about the direction it's headed much more than they were voting about the provisions in this constitution. I've got this constitution on my desk, and I can tell you that if I drop it, I'm not sure the desk would stay in good shape. It would be...

BLOCK: It's that big.

Mr. DOMBEY: It's pretty big. It's pretty big. It has to summarize 50 years of some of the most laborious, complicated negotiations that you've reached between what are now 25 member states. And so it's not the clear declaration of principles that many people wanted.

BLOCK: Let's talk just a bit about some of what is in this constitution, some of the specifics. There are existing treaties now, and it's said that this constitution would streamline a lot of things. But what are the most important things that it would change?

Mr. DOMBEY: OK, it makes it easier to pass laws and directives, the sort of stuff that most EU parliaments spend their time just approving. You have a more rational voting system, in which Germany, as the biggest country, would have the most votes. And it also introduces certain kind of institutional changes which are supposed to give Europe more of a voice on the world stage. It would establish the post of foreign minister; at the moment Europe has a high representative whose role isn't too clear and really doesn't have anyone working for him in terms of a large staff.

But the point is that, on the one hand, the EU is trying to get up to date. On the other hand--and I think this is a real point here--the EU's been very, very successful over the last 50 years, but it's been an idea that's been dreamt up by the elites. People resent not having been asked. The French resent not having been asked about the changes of the EU which have transformed its nature in this much more Anglophone group.

And I think that one of the reasons why this vote on the constitution was so important was it wasn't just about those specific measures. It was really about whether people would give popular endorsement to what, up to now, has been a very successful but a very elite project.

BLOCK: You mentioned that the constitution would have created an EU foreign minister, and I'm trying to imagine how that would work in practice. You clearly have countries within the Union that had widely differing views, say, on the war in Iraq, for one example. How would be a EU foreign minister supercede or complement any of those individual countries' foreign policies?

Mr. DOMBEY: The answer is very carefully. The European Union foreign minister would have to follow orders from 25 different national governments, and, therefore, if there wasn't a consensus on big issues, he would find it difficult to proceed. In particular areas, Europe is quite united. If the big three countries--Britain, France and Germany--can agree, then very often the rest of the 25 rally around. And it does help sometimes for Europe to have a single voice to put that message across.

BLOCK: You now have nine EU countries that have ratified the constitution. You have this resounding no vote from France and what seems to be an upcoming vote tomorrow--also no vote in the Netherlands. What do those mean for the constitution? Is it dead? Can it be renegotiated?

Mr. DOMBEY: I'm kind of reminded of that old Monty Python sketch when someone tries to convince somebody else that his parrot isn't dead. And he says, `This is a dead parrot. It's an ex-parrot. It ceased to be.' And the shopkeeper takes a bit of time to kind of adjust himself to that fact. The European Union's in that state. If there's a second no vote in the Netherlands, just a couple of days after the French vote, it's very hard to see how this is anything other than a constitution that ceased to be. My guess is that it will be politically impossible to proceed because no prime minister or president will want to stick his neck out, in a referendum, on a constitution which is probably dead already.

BLOCK: Could you tinker around the edges then, retool the constitution, so that it could be more palatable to more people?

Mr. DOMBEY: I think it's very hard to renegotiate a constitution. What I do think some people would like to do is revive some of the specific ideas in it. I think the big picture coming from Sunday's vote is that this European integration drive is now, I think, facing one of its biggest dilemmas and its biggest challenges yet.

BLOCK: Daniel Dombey, thanks very much.

Mr. DOMBEY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Daniel Dombey is European diplomatic correspondent for The Financial Times. He spoke with us from Brussels.

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