Non not Oui

26 May 2005
Like a good conversation writing a blog can be a voyage of discovery to your own views. I was against a French ‘Non’and want a ‘Oui’ in their referendum on the European Constitution - for a convoluted reason that was perhaps shamefully local. Polls that ask people in Britain how they will vote show support dropping like a stone if the ‘yes’ argument is led by Tony Blair. He simply cannot win a referendum in the UK. Therefore, I wanted there to be a referendum here. Because I felt sure this would force Blair out relatively quickly as Labour cannot afford to lose it.It follows, sorry I warned it was convoluted, there had to be a French ‘Oui’ as a ‘Non’ means there will not need to be a British vote at all, and thus the Prime Minister would be let off the hook. Now I have changed my mind. You only need to try out this argument to see that it evades the central question, how should the French vote - or, to put it another way, what should Europeans, including the Dutch who vote on 1 June, think of the constitutional treaty being put before us? When I learnt that President Chirac had decided to call for referendum a shudder went through me. I recalled something Tom Nairn wrote back at the start of the ninties after the French voted by the slimmest majority to endorse the Maastricht Treaty. He commented that it was a final warning. The French were saying, ‘OK’, let us do it if we have to. But they were also saying ‘No’ to a Europe from above. Europe had to change accordingly and democratically, Tom stated, Brussels had been warned. Obviously, it had not heeded the warning or changed its ways. Hence my shudder of alarm. But I betrayed myself by reacting in the responsible manner of those with vested interests in the status quo. You can see a well-written and well-informed example of the kind of argument I probably would have agreed with in the new piece by Gwyn Prins in openDemocracy. He actually wants a similar, paper-think majority in France - in other words a repeat warning. But everything he writes points vividly to the opposite conclusion. The time for warnings is past. The French should vote ‘Non’, Brussels does not deserve public endorsement. This simple and convincing argument has been laid out by Frank Vibert in his openDemocracy contribution. Rejection would not create a castastrophic vacum, it would be a healthy opportunity for a much needed re-think. It will only be the end of the world for that part of the world which needs to be ended. Constitutions ought to be a moment to generate democratic legitimacy not the reverse. A highly manipulated, paper-thin ‘Yes’ of the kind Prins hopes for is the last thing that Europe needs. And Vibert has put his effort where his mouth is and helped draft what he thinks is a much better, clearer, simpler constitution to the one on offer. He comes at it from the opposite angle to many in France who see the 250 pages of the constitution as a pantechnicon for the neo-liberal free-market. For Vibert, it is a vehicle for the social market. But that is beside the point. A constitution must set out the principles of association in a way that is clear and democratic. Instead the main principle of the one on offer to us is that the EU should be left to those who think they know best, untouched by the great unwashed. Lets hope the French give it the thumbs down. In my earlier entry I wrote about my conversation with John Berger and how the spirit behind the Non’ movement in France was to reject and defy the whole damn charade of conventional media politics. A call for the real in the face of the spectacle. Now I am saying more than this. A French ‘Non’ followed by a Dutch ‘Nee’ could be the start of a welcome European argument without which there cannot be a European public. This is why British anti-Europeans fear a French refusal. They want the UK to reject the whole European process - the last thing they want is for it to become alive. A British ‘No’ in the face of a continent-wide ‘Yes’ would be narrow and destructive. A French ‘Non’ can open the way to the kind of arguments a constitution and the continent ought to have. Even if it does let Blair off the hook, it will only be for the time being, and it is a price well worth paying.
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