This coming week will see voters in France and the Netherlands consider whether to approve or reject ratification of the new European Constitution. What exactly is at stake? The Constitution was agreed nearly a year ago by the governments of the member states of the European Union (EU). With the recent enlargement, there are now 25 member states of the EU and each must ratify the Constitution, either by referendum or parliamentary vote. The Constitution defines the powers of the EU and attempts to set forth more clearly than before where the sovereignty of the member country ends and the authority of the EU begins.
If the Constitution is ratified, unanimity of member states will no longer be required when it comes to setting up, say, asylum and immigration rules. Approval only requires a qualified majority, defined as “at least 55% of the members of the Council, comprising at least 15 of them and representing Member States comprising at least 65% of the population of the Union." The big issues – defence and foreign policy, taxation and social security – will remain under sovereign national control. All EU members must consent to any action that calls, for instance, for the EU to engage in a political or military intervention in another region.
Many observers believe that voters in the Netherlands and France, two of the six founding members of the European Union, will either reject or just barely pass the Constitution. Why such opposition? Surely, the institutionalization of a president elected for 2-1/2 years is an improvement over the current system of rotating presidents every six months. Even more helpful is the creation of a real EU foreign ministry with its own foreign minister and department. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used to ask, “who do I call when I want to call Europe?” The European Constitution, according to the Council on Foreign Relations European analyst, Charles Kupchan, may finally provide that answer.
These institutional innovations are meant to convey to the world that Europe is a united, coherent super-bloc able to compete with the US and other world powers such as China and Russia. The problem is that while many inside the EU, especially France, want the appearance of a strong and united bloc, they prefer not to give it the powers required to act in practice like a supreme body. A pan-European umma has psychological appeal but individual countries are quite competitive and jealous of each other’s prerogatives. At least the Arab umma has a single language. It will not be easy to conduct EU business in 20 official languages.
The referendum in France and the Netherlands could not come at a worse time for those hoping for ratification. There is a rising spirit of nationalism, some call it populism, in continental Europe. People are angry with the political class – the leaders and elites who cooked up this Constitution. Some people are considering a “no” vote not so much because they object to the Constitution but because they wish to protest against the policies of their current national leaders.
Netherlands. As a founding member of the original European Union, the Netherlands has always been an advocate of a unified Europe. But the Dutch were not happy with the inflationary impact of the Euro on their economy since the late 90’s. Also, Germany and France have ignored the EU budgetary limits supported by the Netherlands, offending the Dutch tradition of fiscal prudence.
The other change in Holland was the rise of a politician named Pym Fortuna, an eclectic homosexual sensation who campaigned against immigration and won, only to be assassinated. All of a sudden, this multi-cultural oasis is beginning to question its lax immigration policies and the fact that a sizeable Moroccan minority lives in the major cities without speaking Dutch or integrating socially with the Dutch majority.
The populist sentiment – “we are Dutch” – is at odds with the mantra of the political class, “we are European.” People want to have a larger say in the decisions of their own national government, and they want their leaders to have a larger say within the EU. On both accounts, the political leadership appears to have lapsed in Holland.
France. France is even more complicated. Jacques Chirac, the incumbent President, wants a “yes” vote and has tried to make it clear to the voters that this referendum is not about admitting Turkey, a decision that will be made in the far off future. Nicholas Sarkozy, the chairman of Chirac’s ruling party and his rival and possible successor, is also in favour of ratification. But a “no” vote would help Sarkozy in eclipsing Chirac, so Sarkozy wins either way.
The opposition Socialist party has a sizeable constituency who will vote “no” for fear that job protection, pensions and welfare state entitlements will be eroded by a more economically liberal European Union. If European Commission President Manuel Barroso is able to remove barriers to service sector competition within Europe, French workers fear they might bear the brunt of an already high unemployment in the face of competition from Eastern Europe.
The French dilemma lies not so much with the Constitution but with the enlargement of the EU and the diminution of France’s relative power as only one among 25 member states. Rather than enhance the exercise of French power through a super-bloc, the EU now serves to check French policy in many ways, most recently during the US war in Iraq, which saw many of the new East European members join with America against the “Old Europe” represented by France and Germany.
Spain and Denmark. Some EU members support the new Constitution. Spain approved it by a wide majority and the Danes look likely to approve it in September. Aside from the fact that Spain has benefited economically and politically from integration within the European Union, Danes and Spaniards identify strongly as Europeans, and thus, object less to subsuming some national rights to a larger European entity.
The consequences of a “no” vote are not as devastating as one might think. If you fail this time, you can try again later. Ireland once rejected an EU Treaty in 2001 only to approve it a year later. The UK sees itself more as a bridge between the US and continental Europe than as a European country. If the UK (or another EU member) fails to ratify the Constitution, informal groups within the EU could still move ahead in areas where there is consensus, while relying on the existing set of EU treaties.
The larger question is whether the demands of this year’s voters that politicians respond to their local and national concerns will prevent the EU from ever becoming a “United” Europe that will to be taken seriously like that other “United” States, as well as Russia and China. To hearken back to Henry Kissinger, there may now be a telephone number in Brussels, but phones will continue to ring also in Rome, London, Prague, Berlin, Paris and the other European capitals.
Jonathan S. Paris is Senior Associate Member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford