France's 'non', Holland's 'nee', Europe's crisis

Kirsty Hughes
31 May 2005

The French non to the European Union constitution on 29 May is still reverberating across Europe, probably to be followed by a Dutch nee on 1 June – tipping the European Union into the biggest crisis in its history. This crisis reflects failures of communication and of democracy; behind them is a third failure, of both politics and imagination – the inability of both France and the EU to come to terms with the historical and geopolitical turning-point of 1989, and to find new roles for themselves in the post-cold war world.

Also in openDemocracy’s “Europe: after the constitution” debate: Patrice de Beer, John Palmer, Dan O’Brien, Krzysztof Bobinski, Gwyn Prins, Neal Ascherson and Frank Vibert draw lessons from the French and Dutch campaigns

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A communications failure

There is no quick fix to deal with the French decision or the ensuing crisis. Beyond the French cabinet reshuffle, European politicians have reacted slowly – partly from shock, partly from the lack of any “plan B”, and partly because they are waiting for the Dutch to vote on 1 June and, beyond that, for the European Council summit on 16-17 June. But the union looks set for a period of infighting, recrimination, conflict and tension: pulling together in a crisis, even at a time of major global challenge, does not appear to be on the cards.

The French rejectionist camp spanned a host of unlikely bedfellows and the non crystallised their diverse concerns: anger against the French government, unemployment, and the perceived “ultra-liberal” slant of the union and constitution; worry over immigration, the loss of French influence in the EU (associated with prospective Turkish membership), and the consequences of the 2004 enlargement to Poland and other ex-communist states.

This list makes clear that, in their European concerns, the French were not voting primarily against the constitution but in fact against much of the current direction and politics of the European Union. The constitution itself does not change the balance of social and economic goals pursued by the union; member-states, for example, still control their own employment policies (the European employment strategy is merely a comparison of best practice). The detailed negotiations of the constitution endorsed neither the “free market” nor the “social Europe” model.

Both the Nice treaty of December 2000 and the constitution allow the EU to introduce new laws that go in either direction; the exact decision would depend on political agreement among member-states (i.e. on ongoing, “normal” EU politics), not on the constitution itself. The French oui campaign failed to communicate this fundamental point.


A democratic failure

Alongside this communication failure lies a much deeper and hard-to-tackle democratic failure. The drafting of the constitution – involving national and European politicians and governments meeting in public – was more democratic than anything in the EU’s history (though some may regret now the lack of a communication budget or strategy), and the constitution itself would in fact make the union more democratic and transparent (not least through ensuring ministers make laws in public). But the French public were not impressed. This suggests that a strategy of making an elitist, complex and technocratic institution slightly less so will not impress Europe’s citizens.

In short, the European constitutional process was unable to ensure that EU policies were fully discussed, debated and aired in the same way that national politics are. Such a genuine European political “space” – the product of a pluralist European democracy gathering the multiple strands of information, debate and political influence across the union – has been long talked of but never created; in its absence national politicians and media have variously misled, misrepresented or ignored the European dimension.

The French non should lead to a renewed discussion of how to build such a pluralist European democracy. The problem is that European politicians and officials who have spent three years attempting to create a more efficient, responsive, accountable European Union are now bereft of ideas.

So, for the moment, the debate is about whether to abandon the constitution entirely, put it on ice (at least until after the French presidential election in 2007) or continue with ratification in the vague hope that the French could change their minds. The latter route – followed by Danes and Irish in earlier treaty ratifications – seems highly improbable in the French case. A prolonged row over the future direction of the European Union seems assured.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, was quick to claim that the key issues are economic not political, and that the French are in effect in denial on globalisation. This characteristic British insistence on the economic aspects of Europe (when the constitution was essentially political), seems almost guaranteed to provoke French ire and augurs a likely clash between the countries that represent the greatest contrast of views within the European Union. It could probably not be a worse time for the British to take over the union’s presidency.

Also by Kirsty Hughes in openDemocracy:

“Europe united?” (September 2001)

“US and Europe fall out over terrorism” (February 2002)

“A constitution for Europe: where is the real debate?” (September 2002)

In such circumstances, where is Europe-wide leadership to come from? In principle, Germany could play such a role, but it is engulfed in its own domestic political turmoil; in any case, Germany no longer plays its traditional role of working with the smaller EU countries. The the European Commission under José Manuel Barroso has lost the leadership authority it had in the era of Jacques Delors.

So, in coming months, all the EU’s faultlines could reappear in stark form: larger vs smaller countries, rich vs poor, net budget contributors vs recipients, free marketeers vs social-model enthusiasts, integrationsts vs inter-governmentalists, pro-US vs anti-US hegemony, older vs newer member-states. Such tensions would make progress on vital economic and social issues – building a common foreign policy, reforming the common agricultural policy or moving smoothly ahead with negotiations with Turkey, the Balkans, or even Ukraine – highly improbable.

A period of introspection, stasis and conflict, with national interests to the fore, now seems likely. Only a year after its enlargement by ten countries in May 2004, the EU is clueless about how to operate with a membership of twenty-five states and in a changing global environment. Some have suggested that a “core” Europe could emerge (based presumably around the eurozone or Schengen states).

The discussion of such options, remote as they are, reflects the European Union’s deep failure of imagination: the inability to come to terms with the geopolitical transformations of post-1989 Europe. But it is not inconceivable that if the constitutional crisis does turn into a battle over the economic direction of Europe, there could eventually be a split into two antagonistic blocs. It is all a long way from the more comfortable days of the European Economic Community and the looser European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in the 1960s.

The European Union is at a major turning-point. It has attempted, through an unprecedented process of open debate, to design a strategic role and direction for itself in the 21st century. For now it has failed. If it can pick up the pieces and look for new ways to create a genuinely democratic EU, that engages with and is responsive to the European public, then it may eventually emerge stronger. But, between French non and Dutch nee, it looks as if the European project will be on the rocks for some time to come.


Further Links
The EU Constitution (pdf)
Reader-friendly EU Constitution
A brief history of the EU
Yes Campaign
No Campaign
EU website
European Voice
E! Sharp


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