Thursday 21 April 2005    


The Week



Daniel Hannan says that a French vote against the EU constitution will be inspired by healthy nationalism

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Issue: 23 April 2005
Non sense
Daniel Hannan

Choc! Horreur! The French are reviling their own creation. Having used the EU to impose their way of thinking on the rest of us, our neighbours have evidently decided that they have had enough of it themselves. The last 15 opinion polls show the amorphous No campaign in the lead; and the normal pattern in Euro-referendums is for the sceptics to surge in the final two weeks of the campaign.

‘Tiens!’ as we like to say in Brussels. ‘Et bien, je jamais.’ Here, after all, is the country which, more than any other, has sculpted the institutions and policies of the EU: the protectionist industrial regime, the Gaullist suspicion of America, the elevation of technocracy over elections, the obsession with social rights. The European Commission has traditionally been run by French civil servants: clever, ambitious men from the École Nationale d’Administration; men like Emile Noël, Jean Monnet’s favourite protégé, who served as the most senior fonctionnaire at the Commission for more than three decades. Although Noël’s name is barely known outside Brussels, he, more than anyone, is responsible for creating the institutional structure we know today, built to Gallic specifications. The very timing of the EU’s entrance exams was arranged to coincide with the French academic year; and the dominance of Brussels institutions by French bureaucrats tended to result in policies that, if not exactly tricoloré, were at least fleurdelisé. The fact that, for example, the Common Agricultural Policy is tailored to suit French farmers owes a good deal to the tacit understanding — only very recently abandoned — that the senior official in the agriculture division should always be a Frenchman.

Today, these French Eurocrats are wandering about with dazed expressions. They wonder — for it is human nature to place oneself at the centre of the universe — how their countrymen can have drifted so far away from them. They are bewildered by France’s apparent ingratitude, and frightened by the implications of it. If Europe’s most loyal daughter is in a strop, what hope of winning the argument in countries with more tangible grievances?

On this side of the Channel, meanwhile, Euro-sophists are getting in their excuses in advance. This referendum, they say, isn’t really about Europe at all. It’s actually about Chirac and his unpopular ministry. That’s the problem with referendums, you see: people will insist on voting on the wrong question.

Some Euro-enthusiasts try a different tack. The French, they assert, don’t think the constitution goes far enough — they think it’s too British. If they vote No, it will in many ways be a vote for deeper integration.

These arguments are perilously close to becoming accepted, even in Eurosceptic newspapers. So let us take a moment to deal with them. Consider, first, the contention that the French and British No campaigns are pushing for opposite things. It is certainly true that the bulk of French opposition to the constitution comes from the Left (although by no means all of it; if there were not also substantial scepticism on the Right, the Yes campaign would be miles ahead). ‘Et alors?’, as the French say. So what if French socialists and British Tories have different visions of employment law or human rights? These are questions for general elections. What is at stake in the referendum is how far national parliaments should be allowed to decide such matters for themselves.

There were, admittedly, one or two French politicians who would have liked the constitution to go even further, notably the Centrist leader François Bayrou. But they quickly fell into line behind the Yes campaign once the referendum was called, for the good reason that, from their point of view, the constitution represents a considerable improvement on the status quo. As during the Maastricht referendum in 1992, there is now a near-unanimous line-up of French politicians in favour.

Which brings us to the question of whether the referendum is really a rejection of the political class by everyone else — or, as they say in France, of the pays légal by the pays réel. Yes, of course it is. Of all the stereotypes that the British have of the French, one is outstanding in its accuracy: they are grumpy. And they have plenty to be grumpy about, being governed as they are by a self-serving cartel. What’s more, they have accurately clocked that European integration is making their government even less accountable. They realise that the constitution will remove decisions still further from the people. To claim that the French are voting on the wrong issue is to underestimate their perspicacity. If you feel that administration is already too remote, you are hardly going to want to transfer powers to even more distant institutions. If you have had enough of unelected commissars and énarques in Paris, you don’t want to be pushed around by another set of commissars and énarques in Brussels.

French souverainistes have been quick to make the connection. One of my friends in the Vendée is campaigning under the slogan ‘Do yourself a favour: vote no’ (‘Faites-vous plaisir: votez non’). ‘People are fed up with the whole shambles,’ he told me. ‘With the unemployment, with the corruption, with Chirac, with Brussels, with their boss. I am inviting them to flick two fingers at the lot of them.’

Last month I spent several days on the hustings with French No campaigners. My doorstep conversations opened my eyes to a startling truth, viz, that the things which foreigners most resent about the French government are equally resented by the French themselves. Several of the people I met spoke of their own ministers as of an occupying power. Many No voters describe the poll as ‘Le Raffarindum’ — a play on the name of the Prime Minister they detest.

When they look at Brussels, French people do not see their own image reflected back, but that of their smug ruling caste. At a No rally, I told the audience a story about Harold Nicolson who, like many Francophiles of his generation, was devastated by the fall of France in 1940, convinced that European civilisation could not exist unless France was sovereign. Following the liberation, he took the first ferry he could to free French soil. When he landed at Dieppe, he leaned down to touch the ground. ‘Monsieur a laissé tomber quelque chose?’ asked a porter. ‘Non,’ replied Nicolson, ‘j’ai retrouvé quelque chose.’ ‘If you choose to be Frenchmen,’ I concluded, ‘if you throw off this racket and become a nation again, the rest of us will feel the same way.’ It produced the warmest cheer that I expect ever to receive as a politician.

Not that the result is in the bag. My sense, for what it’s worth, is that the Noes have it. But I could be wrong; I usually am. In 1992 many voters were moved at the last minute by the pathos of President Mitterrand’s announcement that he had cancer. And even so, it was the closest imaginable result. Indeed, the voters of mainland France narrowly rejected the treaty, but the outcome was tipped by massive Yes votes in outre-mer and from French voters resident abroad. French Guyana registered a Yes vote of 74.2 per cent, Guadeloupe of 72.1 per cent, and there were similar results in the rest of France’s colonial archipelago. Quite why this should have happened has never been adequately explained. These are non-European territories, after all, many of which have a strong tradition of backing the Communist party, which was anti-Maastricht. Could it simply be that the counts took place far away, in different time-zones, and with few scrutineers? It would certainly explain why President Mitterrand was able to assure the British government that there had been a narrow Yes vote long before the polls had closed.

Let us hypothesise, though, that the souverainistes carry the day. What would be the consequence? One possibility would be for the other members to apply to France the full logic of the arguments with which they threaten Britain: that is, to push ahead on their own. You have chosen to opt out of the debate, they could say, which leaves us free to construct the Anglo-Saxon Europe that you kept blocking: let’s start by scrapping the CAP and the Social Chapter; let’s bring in flat taxes; let’s open our markets to the rest of the world.

Realistically, though, this is not how the EU works. We have been here before, after all. When Denmark voted against Maastricht, when Ireland voted against Nice — and, for that matter, when the markets voted against the ERM — the EU’s response was to carry on regardless. There is no Plan B in Brussels; Plan A is simply resubmitted over and over again until it is accepted.

Something similar will happen with the constitution. The heads of government will make soothing noises about addressing the voters’ concerns, then call a new intergovernmental conference and ram through 95 per cent of what they were proposing under the constitution. This time, though, there will be no referendums. No one will repeat that mistake — certainly not Tony Blair. Despite the Prime Minister’s repeated public assurances to the contrary, he appears to be weaselling out of his promise to hold a British poll regardless of the result in France.

We are, in other words, being treated by our government exactly as the French are by theirs. Having tantalisingly dangled the prospect of a referendum, Blair wants to whisk it away again. We might have had a cathartic opportunity to vote, not just on this constitution, but on 30 years of transfers of power to Brussels. Now we are likely to be denied that possibility. It is outrageous, maddening and somehow utterly predictable. Fortunately, though, there is one referendum that even Tony Blair can’t cancel: it falls on 5 May.