After weeks of agonising and frustrating debate the French people, in their referendum on Sunday 29 May, voted decisively to reject the European Union constitutional treaty. The Dutch seem very likely to do the same on Wednesday 1 June. The treaty may not be dead but it is very close to death . The summit meeting of European Union heads of state and government in Brussels on 16-17 June will take place amidst the most serious crisis the EU and the wider process of European integration has faced for many years.
Also in openDemocracys Europe: after the constitution debate, Krzysztof Bobinski, Gwyn Prins, Neal Ascherson and Frank Vibert draw lessons from the French and Dutch campaigns
At the summit, the European Council will debate whether, in light of the French and Dutch results, to take the treaty off the table. In effect this would bring the ratification process to a halt. So far nine of the twenty-five member-states have voted, by referendum or parliamentary process, to ratify the constitutional treaty. After France and the Netherlands, another fourteen countries including Denmark, Poland, Ireland, and Britain will have the opportunity to pass judgment. The peoples of these countries are as entitled to be heard as the French or Dutch.
The treatys implementation requires ratification by all EU members without exception, and only when the process of ratification has been completed in all twenty-five member-states can a final judgment be made about whether the treaty should be abandoned. In the meantime the debate should continue, the real choices for the union clarified and if needed a plan B thought through and prepared for decision.
The debate about what to do, however, is made all the more difficult by the fact that the French referendum threw up completely contradictory reasons for rejection of the treaty. Sections of the right and especially the far right of Jean-Marie Le Pen campaigned against the supranational claims of European integration which they linked to increased immigration (in a way that many British Eurosceptics would find familiar). But the decisive no votes came from parts of the left who want more not less Europe, especially in the field of social and environmental policy and also in terms of a global policy markedly different to that of the Bush administration. The Netherlands debate has more closely mirrored that in Britain with complaints about paying too much into the EU budget looming large.
The geology of world governance
The rejection of the treaty in individual member-states is not the beginning of the end for the European Union as a whole, nor for the single European currency, the euro. Such an implosion of the union will not happen. The process of European integration which touches so many areas of our collective public and private lives has evolved to the point where a definitive unravelling of post-second world war European history is almost unimaginable. When EU member-states agree to cooperate more closely with each other or take decisions together on the basis of shared sovereignty, they do so because there are some challenges too great for individual governments to respond to effectively by acting alone.
Globalisation, the emergence of the United States as the worlds only hyperpower, and systemic threats (such as global warming and international terrorism) are just some of the challenges that propel governments (and increasingly civil society organisations) to come together, to decide together and to act together. The European Union is only the most advanced example of the kind of global regional community based on sharing of sovereignty, democracy and the rule of law that is emerging internationally. The same tectonic changes in the world economy and global politics are pushing other communities of states together in southeast, east and south Asia (such as Asean), in Latin America (Mercosur), in Africa (the African Union) and elsewhere.
Yet the defeat of the treaty will not make the debate on economic reform and modernisation (the Lisbon process, designed to make the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010) or the future management of its affairs by euroland governments any easier. There are bound to be sharp disagreements over how best to plot a course to faster growth and more employment which supports (and does not seem to threaten, as many in France fear) European values of social cohesion and sustainable development.
The EU may be obliged for some time to function with a system of governance that was already grossly inadequate for the world of the late 20th century. Indeed it may require the election of new national political leadership in some of the key member-states over the next two or three years before a conjuncture emerges in which a new constitutional process could begin. A series of elections is approaching in Germany (probably in September 2005), Italy (2006) and France (2007) with all the current incumbents in some difficulty. Might serious new treaty negotiations have to be postponed to 2007 or later?
The postponement of the treaty will also mean that the European Union cannot go ahead with the creation of the new union foreign minister or the planned new European diplomatic service. This can hardly help to create a truly common European foreign, security and defence policy. This may cause no loss of sleep among Washingtons neo-conservatives. But for all those who look to the EU to lead the world to a global system based on the rule of law, democracy and human rights the referendum outcomes could look like a dismaying unwillingness by the Europeans to play a serious role in world affairs.
Unblocking the impasse
A colder political climate will make it more difficult to get a sensible discussion about future EU enlargement. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 seems a done deal. But the debate about Turkeys membership application in both France and the Netherlands was primitive in the extreme. In any case, final decisions about the accession of Turkey, the remaining Balkan states and possibly of Ukraine will not in any reasonable perspective have to be taken for another ten to fifteen years.
This is not an impasse that can continue indefinitely. There will undoubtedly be pressures arising from the impossibility of the twenty-five (twenty-seven in 2007) to function effectively under the rules agreed under the Nice treaty of December 2000. This will be underlined if the European Council summit fails to make progress on a number of key issues: the financing of the union budget, the Lisbon process, and helping the EU to speak and act in a united fashion in world affairs. The medium-term consequence of a rejection of the treaty would be a protracted period of drift. The longer it lasts the greater and the more unpredictable the negative effects will be, for the world at large as well as Europe.
Far too many citizens feel an unacceptable distance even alienation between themselves and the European Union. But public disenchantment with national leaders is even greater than with the institutions of the European Union. The referenda provide an opportunity for voters to pass judgment on deeply unpopular governments in many cases over issues quite unrelated to the treaty or even the European Union in general. In a sense the union has been taken hostage by the side-effect of essentially national political dramas.
Too many politicians have, for too long, used Brussels as a euphemism for some phantasmagorical other which has to be confronted, countered, bypassed or undermined as a threat to national interests. Too often, national politicians have used the EU as a scapegoat, passing to Brussels the blame for policies they regard as necessary but which may be unpopular domestically.
In modern European democracies, the public expects not only to be consulted but also to help shape the future direction of the union by exercising choice between competing programmes, parties and potential leaders of the political executive. In particular the European political families must rapidly complete their transition to being serious trans-national parties. At the next European parliament elections in 2008, the European parties should offer clear-cut alternative programmes for voters to choose between, including their rival candidates to become president of the European Commission. Only in this way can a sense of ownership of the European project be returned to the public.
Get our weekly email