French referendum lessons

Frank Vibert
10 May 2005

If France votes “no” in the 29 May referendum on the treaty establishing a European Union constitution, the most sensible reaction for other member-states and the EU’s institutions would be to take time out for a long period of reflection.

The worst response would be to pretend it had not happened and for other countries to press ahead with their votes. A “yes” vote in France will be treated as decisive – even if by a wafer-thin majority. A “no” vote should be treated in the same way.

In a country such as the United Kingdom where the “yes” camp struggles to mobilise support, the going would be even tougher after a French “no”. People will not know what they are voting for. The “no” camp on the other hand would have a field-day. By pressing ahead regardless of a French “no”, a Europe of the elite would have shown once again contempt for the voter.

Among Frank Vibert’s articles on openDemocracy:

“The future of Europe – simplify, simplify” (December 2001)

“The new cosmopolitanism” (March 2003)

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How long should such a pause actually last? There is much to be said for it being a long pause of at least five years. In this period the Nice treaty of December 2000 will remain in force for existing members. A “no” vote will put a cloud over accession negotiations with Turkey, the Ukraine and ex-Yugoslavian states. But the negotiations do not need to be hurried – neither need they be delayed.

At some point, however, all the inadequacies of the existing treaty base will become apparent once again. The treaty base is inaccessible, over-long, deliberately obscure, and fails to provide fundamental principles of democratic organisation.

A union of more than thirty member-states also needs a different kind of base. The problem is that the proposed new treaty establishing a constitution – agreed at the Brussels summit in June 2004 and signed by EU member-state leaders in Rome four months later – suffers from the same basic flaws as the existing treaty base and in certain respects compounds them. A pause would provide an opportunity to think again and to look at the fundamentals.

A pause, not a vacuum

A pause will not be the same as a vacuum. Private groups, such as the European Constitutional Group (ECG), universities and think-tanks will produce competing alternatives for a successor treaty or constitution. The ECG has already prepared one.

Such a process is much better initiated by private groups. Many of the defects of the proposed treaty establishing a constitution result from an unprincipled bargaining between the existing institutional vested interests of the European Union – the council, commission, parliament and court of justice – and the process is much better off without them. When the period of reflection comes to an end, governments will have plenty of time to make their own choices between the alternatives in the light of whatever public opinion will be at that future point.

The duck test

Referendums are being much criticised as paving the way for people to vote on anything other than the actual content of the constitution. Yet, leaving aside the special nature of the arguments in France about ratification, something else is strange about what is happening. Constitutions are normally about new foundations, new beginnings and vision. Ideally, they are strong on principles of democratic organisation and brief on details.

But the document that the French, Dutch, Danes, Irish and others will be asked to vote on is being played by its proponents in an altogether different way. It is being presented as about continuity rather than renewal; about tidying up rather than as a vision for the future; about the exercise of powers rather than their justification; and about agreeing terms of debate for conventional left/right exchanges rather than approving founding documents that involve decisions about the fundamental character of political association.

Some already regard it as a mistake to have referred to it as a “constitution” at all. If people vote for other things it is perhaps in part because the duck they are being asked to vote for neither quacks like a duck, nor looks like a duck nor flies like a duck. It is in fact a turkey.

DOA – dated on arrival

The inter-institutional bargaining that determined the shape of the treaty establishing a constitution has given birth to a product that already looks dated. The proliferation of language about the social market will seem increasingly beside the point as China and India flex their muscles as new international centres for manufacturing and services. The licence for intrusiveness given by the treaty will look increasingly out of step with the assertiveness of states in Europe. The structure of power-sharing between the major European Union institutions – never a democratic feature – runs counter to an increasing trend towards a separation of powers within states.

The new treaty also conveys a misunderstanding about what the EU brings to the world. What the EU can contribute is not the throw-weight of a would-be great power in a so-called “multipolar” system. Its great contribution to date has been about encouraging democracy in Europe. It has been able to achieve this through the enlargement of the union. This process can and must continue.

The same role is relevant for the European Union’s posture towards the outside world. It needs to stand alongside the United States in supporting the spread of democracy. There was a time in the post-war world when the US was criticised for its fondness for Latin American dictators. Nowadays, it is the EU that is likely to have uncomfortable friendships or find itself in the embarrassing and indefensible position of wanting to sell arms to China. Instead of talking the language of a common foreign, security and defence policy, with its vision of a multi-polar world and subliminal anti-Americanism, it needs to talk the language of working with allies for the spread of democracy.

The French may not vote “no”. In that case the honour may fall to the Dutch or the British. Far from a disaster or “the end of Europe”, a “no” vote can provide a valuable opportunity for a rethink. When that rethink has taken place, a revised treaty needs to do what the constitutional treaty does not do. It needs to provide a basis for economic and social renewal in the EU, shedding what does not work and putting clearer focus on what does work, to reshape the institutional framework on the basis of democratic principles rather than inter-institutional job sharing and to set out a vision for Europe’s democratising role in the world in conjunction with its allies.

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