Losing EU Referendums. Easy When You Know How

How to Lose an EU Referendum

By Denis MacShane

Today (29 May) is the tenth anniversary of the biggest referendum on Europe held this century. In France and the Netherlands, two founding member states of the European integration project voters said No to the proposed constitutional treaty.

It was called a constitution but in reality was just another treaty agreed between member states after arduous negotiations. Curiously the proposed text excluded the words ‘ever-closer union of peoples’ which today is exercising British demands for a new deal from the EU sufficient to persuade David Cameron to throw his weight behind a campaign to stay in Europe.

In France President Chirac assumed a Oui vote was in the bag. Opinion polls showed a 70 per cent support for the EU constitution. After all, had not France been a founding father of European integration and recovered the honour and rank lost in the 1940 defeat and occupation and then in foolish wars in Vietnam and Algeria?

The Socialist Party was fervently pro-European and the images of Franco-German reconciliation  within the EU reflected in the photograph of Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand reaching out to hold each other’s hand at Verdun were the most re-published press photo in French journalism.

But quickly the Yes campaign lost the edge. It had the money. It had business on its side. It had two political heavyweights – the French foreign minister, Michel Barnier, and the Socialist Party’s top European expert, Pierre Moscovici – as co-chairs. It had stylish campaigners like Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The French press unlike our own more Eurosceptic media was solidly in favour.

But it took the Oui for granted. The Non camp consisted of the far left of Communists and Trotskyists and the far right of Jean Marie Le Pen and his daughter, Marine, and their growing Front National party network.

In 1992, a referendum in France nearly scuppered the Masstricht Treaty. The losers in that campaign sought their revenge in 2005. Two prominent socialists, the former prime minister, Laurent Fabius, today France’s foreign minister and Arnaud Montebourg, sacked last year as France’s Minister of the Economy, decided to join the Non campaign.

The Nonistes appealed to French workers, to the unemployed, to the poor, to the left-behinds in the globalised EU and told them their unhappy state was because their nation had surrendered too much power to international capital which dominated the European Union. The faceless Eurocrats, or Federastes as Jean Marie Le Pen called them, had robbed France of the power to protect its citizens from the forces of market competition and open frontiers.

The Oui camp had the plush Paris offices and big business lined up. But it had no idea how to reach out to ordinary worried French people. It was complacent about victory.  Those who want to win Britain’s Brexit plebiscite should start learning French.


Denis MacShane is a former Europe minister under Tony Blair and author of Brexit : How Britain Will Leave Europe published by IB Tauris

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