LAST year, when the former French Prime Minister Valery Giscard D'Estaing delivered the draft EU Constitution, which he had been responsible for preparing, he urged that it should be accepted as it stood without amendment; otherwise, he said, “it would fall apart”. Well, since then it has had to bear amendment on a huge scale and it it is greatly to the credit of the Irish government led by Bertie Ahern that it has not fallen apart and survived to be agreed upon by 25 heads of government and prime ministers on Friday night. The Irish Taoiseach redeemed the careless and ignominious failure to achieve agreement, presided over by Silvio Berlusconi last December, and in doing so also made a significant statement for the role of all the smaller countries now forming a sizeable group in the EU, following enlargement.

The agreement was also a triumph for Tony Blair who battled against the depressing negativism towards Europe currently prevalent in Britain to achieve a Constitution which provides a framework for the EU's next two decades while offering considerable freedom for movement for individual countries. The fact that Mr Blair secured all his “red line” exclusions for Britain, and so gave an example for other countries to get their special needs, showed that leadership in Europe is possible even when a country is not signed-up to the whole EU package; in Britain's case, its continuing disinclination to join the single currency.

INITIAL reactions in Britain yesterday showed that Mr Blair's moment of triumph will be short-lived. The Sun newspaper, with a thumbs-down, and its stable-companion The Times, with a thunderous and probably pre-written turn-down of “A Flawed Document”, showed that the power of Mr Murdoch's press will be directed to the defeat of the referendum on ratification of the Constitution already promised by the Prime Minister. Whether this referendum takes place before or after the next general election, will require nice judgement by Mr Blair. Last weekend's EU elections suggest that it will be exceedingly difficult to obtain a positive vote for the Constitution but the case is by no means lost; one of the great virtues of a referendum is that it concentrates minds on a single issue and enables the pros and cons to be exposed and debated in some depth.

One of the early decisions that the British Government must therefore take is to encourage the creation of an all-party group to campaign for the Constitution; thus far the case has gone depressingly by default and this should be corrected even if Mr Blair is not ready to name a date for the referendum. Among those who should be recruited to this task is Neil Kinnock; although he is often thought of as one of yesterday's men, and is tarred with the brush of service with the EU Commission in Brussels, he showed in a radio interview yesterday morning that he has the ability to expose the shallowness of so many of the anti-EU arguments put forward by sceptics in politics and the media; he could be matched by Chris Patten, also an eloquent advocate of the EU's achievements and potential.

IT is fortunate that the prolonged debate in Brussels over the Constitution prevented any serious consideration of the appointment of a President of the Commission to succeed the unlamented Romano Prodi. Mr Ahern was wise to suggest a short while for reflection but if the matter is to be settled during the Irish presidency, as is desirable because there should be an effective Commission in place by September, there are now only ten days to go. Bertie Ahern is said to have had the name he favours in his back pocket for several days; he should put it on the table soon.