The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said the EU now faces a “serious problem,” but offered no pointers as to how to solve it.
"It means we have a problem. We have a problem, a serious problem. France is a very important member of the European Union, a founding member of the European Union. We cannot conceive of Europe without France. Now, we have to have some time to think," Barroso said.
It is expected that the upcoming EU summit on 16-17 June will now almost exclusively deal with this issue.
The constitution, the first ever for the EU, took two years to negotiate and makes vital adjustments to EU structures to facilitate the functioning of the bloc after last year’s enlargement.
French critics of the constitution said the constitution gives too much power to Brussels, something they fear could be used to dismantle some of France’s social welfare structures. Proponents in France argued that the constitution is necessary for Europe to become more politically integrated and to enlarge further and become a more effective global player.
All the major French parties supported the constitution but it was rejected by the public in what also appeared to be a protest vote against the French political establishment over both domestic and EU issues.
For the moment, Barroso and other EU leaders insist that the result in France must not deprive other EU member states of their chance of having their say. The three largest political groups in the European Parliament – the conservatives, socialists, and liberals -- have all issued statements to that effect.
The EU humanitarian affairs commissioner and former Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said last night that it is the commission’s view that ratification must continue.
"To my opinion, this does not mean the end of the constitution, or the end of that treaty. It is, of course, more difficult, we will have to convince. But first of all, as we did for the French people, we have to maintain the right of the other people of Europe who did not decide yet, to decide and to give us their opinion about the problem," Michel said.
However, the constitution may face another immediate blow on 1 June when the Netherlands will hold its referendum. Polls have consistently shown that the Dutch are unlikely to approve the constitution, and the French result will not have improved things.
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking for the EU’s current rotating presidency, tried to put on a brave face yesterday.
"I do think, knowing the Dutch, that they will take their decision on their own. Of course, they will listen to the arguments circulated around in the French debate, but not only to the 'no' arguments, also to the 'yes' arguments, and so, I think that the Dutch will not be influenced in a too huge way about what happened in France," Juncker said.
Other referendums already announced or indicated as likely by a number of EU governments may prove equally difficult to win. A possibly skeptical Denmark will vote in September. Ministers in traditionally euroskeptic Britain, which has previously said it will hold a referendum in early 2006, failed to confirm late yesterday that the plans remain on track. Poland and the Czech Republic, where referendums are also a strong likelihood, both have high levels of discontent with the EU.
The constitution must be ratified by all 25 member states to come into effect.
It is difficult to see how this can be achieved after the reversal in France without a repeat referendum. This is a tactic that has worked before, most recently in Ireland.
However, France, as a founder member of the EU, is widely considered too large and important for this to work. Also, previously specific treaty modifications have been offered to dissenters such as Denmark and Ireland to mollify their publics. This is not an option under the new constitution, key parts of which deal with the division of powers among member states and EU institutions, where exceptions would mean the whole text would need to be renegotiated.
Many experts think parts of the constitution can be salvaged without its ratification. EU member states could decide in a summit to create some of the changes envisaged in the constitution -- such as having a full-time EU president and a foreign minister -- without the whole constitution being ratified.
However, the French “No” will undermine vital economic reforms in the EU and deepen the divisions between the supporters and opponents of free trade and open markets. A major factor in the French vote were fears of falling living standards as a result of an influx of labour from eastern member states.
The enlargement process may also become a casualty. The accession of Turkey, never popular in France, may now be put on hold. Bulgaria and Romania could also face additional hurdles, possibly exacerbated by the likely return to power in Germany of right-of-centre parties in the autumn.
Although Bulgaria and Romania have already signed accession treaties, they cannot join the EU without a further vote by each of the 25 member states’ parliaments. If one parliament refuses, a candidate’s case would enter uncharted waters.
Croatia and other nations in the western Balkans could also face a long wait before their -- until now guaranteed -- accession prospects materialise.