The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                                    PAGE THREE

Is Defeat Looming for the European Union Constitution?

There could very well be a defeat of the European Union Constitution, also being called the 'treaty', in France on May 29,  if a slim majority of French voters say non as many predict they will.   Polls indicate it will go down to defeat, but optimists believe that some twenty per cent of undecided voters could still make the pendulum swing the other way.  Although all the countries in the Union today are linked by various treaties and the Union will not fall apart, a rejection by the French would be the end for the Constitution.   The Dutch, who vote on June 1,  seem even more likely to reject it.  To date, nine countries have approved the Constitution  ~ most prominently it was ratified by the legislature in Germany and Austria and passed by voters overwhelmingly in Spain.   President Chirac had the option to bring it to the legislature in France, but opted to put it before the citizens for a vote.  At the time, it seemed that passage was a foregone conclusion.  It is a risk he may now regret having taken.  When asked why the 'no' campaign has been so successful, British commentator Robin Oakley said, "Because referendums nearly always turn out to be not an answer to the question but a verdict on the popularity of those asking the question." 

What is it all about?

The 252-page document, years in preparation and negotiation and written in French,  is complicated to say the least.  Reading it cover to cover doesn't ensure a pro stance, apparently, as many who have read it are opposed.  Its intent is to streamline the political processes in the European Union, change the revolving presidency to a two-year term from the current six-month term, create a foreign minister to represent the Union, and permit some issues to pass or fail based upon a majority of its members rather than the current requirement of a unanimous vote.  Those are the highlights.

Those in favor... 

Now, here's the mystery!   You can't define the 'yes' and 'no' votes by party line.  Although in France conservatives over the age of 50 seem to be a reliable bloc who approve of the Constitution, it is said most often that it is favored by the bureaucrats, politicians and intellectuals.  Officially supported by the center-left Socialists,  party members are actually divided on the Constitution.  The last minute appeal on May 26 by President Chirac to the nation was to urge people to see that France has a responsibility, as a founder of the Union some 50 years ago, to approve the Constitution.   He sees ratification as creating a strong balance of power against the United States and China.  The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic and others are also urging the French to vote 'oui'. 

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing,  the former French president who was chairman of the convention where the Constitution was drafted, said there is no renegotiation should it meet defeat by the French.  He reiterated that years of work had gone into negotiating the terms of the Constitution and added that those opposed to the ratification expect that a better alternative (in their minds) would be worked out should it be defeated.  He said that would not happen.  Others predict rewriting it was possible,  but it would take years. 

It is the opinion of those in favor of the Constitution that it will simply strengthen the Union. Those in favor are trying to urge a 'yes' vote saying that it is about ending gridlock on EU decisions and is not a vote on the internal matters of France. 

Those opposed...

Both the right wing represented by Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front as well as the far left Communists and Trotskyites are strongly opposed to ratification.  While the right sees it as hiding a secret plan to admit Turkey to the Union (Giscard d'Estaing is against admitting Turkey yet in favor of the Constitution) and fostering rampant immigration into France, the far left sees it as opening the door to a complete free-market economy and capitalism while threatening France's benefits and services to its citizens.  The French public seems to agree, especially on the issue of admitting Turkey.  And, France's unemployment situation, the numbers stagnant for so very long, is not increasing the popularity of its government and leaders among the working class.

To expand further on the employment issue, those in France opposed to Turkey joining the EU are worried that Turkish laborers will enter the country freely taking away already hard-to-find jobs.  Although that prospect is not a direct result of ratifying the Constitution, it is one of many issues that French voters from all political parties find troubling should the Constitution pass.  They fear competition from the economies of Eastern Europe believing that jobs will leave France, that they will lose more control over their own lives and that important issues affecting them will be decided in Brussels. 

Europeans opposed to the treaty seem to be so inclined because leaders in favor of it are so disliked, and they have so little trust in political parties.  People like President Chirac and Britain's Tony Blair are not that well thought of by their own countrymen and women.   It seems the most outstanding reasons for that disdain are Chirac's desire for Turkey to join the EU and Blair's close ties to the very unpopular George W. Bush.  Anthony Coughlan, a lecturer emeritus at Trinity College in Dublin,  is opposed to the ratification believing that "tensions and divisions will grow as people do not like having their laws made at a higher level" [editor's note: in Brussels]. He thinks it will increase nationalism and generate hatred among people.  He said, too, that it would put into doubt the military neutrality of such member countries as Sweden, Austria and Ireland. 

Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, is speaking out in the hopes the French will reject the treaty, saying that "European bureaucrats and intellectuals" make up the group that will benefit most from it.  How much influence he will have in his own country awaits to be seen as his own Prime Minister is in favor of it.

What will a 'oui' or a 'non' vote mean? 

What effect will failure have?  It's really a matter of opinion at this point.  Those for ratification believe that the euro will be at peril if the monetary union should weaken after a rejection of the Constitution.  Although the member countries would continue to operate as a trade bloc, defeat would weaken their ability to deal with unpopular issues in the Union such as admitting Turkey, farm subsidies and the national deficits.  Perhaps the effect on France itself is the bigger question.  President Chirac and other French leaders see defeat as very harmful to France who, they believe, will be viewed as a spoiler.  Chirac sees France losing global influence as well as status within the Union itself. 

If the French vote oui, Giscard's own wording of the Constitution would give France a 50% increase in representation in European Union voting.  However, the Constitution could still face defeat in Britain or elsewhere.  The British already see the Constitution as a grab by French and Germans for increased power in the EU.  Following France, there will still be the majority of countries who must vote.  However, if France ratifies the Constitution, the 'no' vote of a smaller country will not necessarily doom it forever, as the smaller countries will be requested to hold another referendum. 

If a large country like France votes non,  it is all but over.  It remains to be seen what effect rejection would have in the short term in Europe and on the domestic political scene in France.   It certainly won't help Jacques Chirac's bid for re-election to a third term in 2007. 

The Cheese Challenge

The crisis facing French wine producers was mentioned in our last newsletter in our piece entitled, Crisis in the Vineyards, but a a similar situation may well be facing the cheesemakers of France.  And, if you are a lover of French cheese, this will not be pleasant!

Although it seems that the French no longer produce a mere 400 cheeses  ~ apparently, that number is closer to 1000  ~  many varieties are actually becoming 'extinct' like some rare bird that once lived on a remote South Pacific island.  What distinguishes many fine French cheeses from store-bought cheeses wrapped in plastic is that the fine cheeses are made from unpasteurized milk from recipes handed down generation after generation and often for many centuries.  Today, those only represent 7% of French cheeses!

An association has been formed in France to protect the remaining cheeses that, as we all know, are quite special and very unique.  It is the Association Fromages de Terroirs, presided over by V?ronique Richez-Lerouge.  She relates how some cheeses just disappear naturally, perhaps after hundreds of years of production.  This happens when the last producer dies having not left the secret process for that cheese to an heir.   But, this is not the typical problem facing today's French cheese industry. Cheese BoardMore to the point is the European Union which has what are considered 'draconian' laws and rules for cheese production.   First, when ratings are given, those receiving high ratings more than 50% of the time are cheeses made from pasteurized milk.  Furthering the demise of specialty cheeses is the fact that the larger food stores no longer have a cheese cutting counter.  Unfortunately, specialty cheese shops aren't found on every corner!   We mustn't omit the outbreaks of listeria which added to the problem, although evidence shows that pasteurized cheese, meat and fish all are susceptible.

In the past, France has been known to protect its artisanal producers in many industries from outside pressures and competition.  It even saw to it that large supermarchés didn't put smaller epicures out of business by restricting where the larger stores could be located.  However, with the laws of the European Union taking precedence over individual country laws in so many cases, times have changed.  Representatives from France are being encouraged to fight to the end in Brussels to protect the small French producer.

Encouraging news is that younger people are beginning to take an interest in their national cheeses  ~ environmentally aware men and women who wish to move to the countryside, adapt their lifestyle to become cheesemakers and, in the process,  save a wonderful tradition.  A cheese school in Paris has record registration numbers and that, too, is encouraging.

The Galleries Lafayette department store in Paris has a department called 'Lafayette Gourmet' that has taken on the task of creating a French cheese guide to assist shoppers in making their decisions.    If you are in Paris and want to buy authentic, unpasteurized French cheeses, this is the place to visit.  They now carry 150 varieties! 

But, you don't have to be in France to enjoy their superb cheeses.  Here is a web site you may want to visit to discover a wide variety of cheeses that can be shipped overnight to your door:  This company has been shipping French cheese to all the corners of the world for eight years. 

[Photo of cheese board courtesy of the web site]


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