The Magazine

Après 'Non,' le Déluge?

From the May 30, 2005 issue: The European constitution goes before the voters.

May 30, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 35 • By GERARD BAKER
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NIKITA KHRUSHCHEV ONCE COMMENTED WRYLY that the only trouble with free elections is that you never know who's going to win. The old shoe-banger's words have been echoing around Europe these last few weeks, as the continent prepares for a democratic exercise that could alter the entire political construct and direction of Europe. Nobody has a clue what is going to happen. And European leaders are as terrified of voters as the ever-smiling Khrushchev was.

The occasion is not strictly an election, but a referendum, or a whole series of them, beginning Sunday, May 29, in France, on whether or not to approve the E.U.'s first-ever constitution, created last year by an inter-governmental treaty signed by the union's heads of government. The constitution, a prolix, rambling document at least ten times the length of the U.S. Constitution (with amendments) and infinitely less inspiring, is an attempt to set out in detail the relations between European governments and the people they govern.

In some respects, the constitution simply consolidates multifarious existing treaties and arrangements into a single document. For example, it formally establishes a single European foreign minister and diplomatic service to implement a single foreign policy, a goal first laid out in European negotiations a decade ago. But in other areas, the constitution creates important new rules. It gives small but critical powers to the European parliament, the self-proclaimed representative body that is better described as a collection of pampered nobodies on large expense accounts elected by ridiculously low percentages of their national electorates. The constitution also confers rights on "European citizens," most notably through the introduction of a Charter of Fundamental Rights, which covers, among others, the "right to work."

The principal effect of the constitution, however, is to confirm and accelerate the central tendency of the E.U. over the last 50 years to send power to the center, to the European level, while eroding national sovereignty in everything from economic policy to foreign and defense policy. The constitution is, the German minister for European affairs said earlier this year, "the birth certificate of the United States of Europe."

Though a rather bold step, the constitution was not expected to run into trouble when the process of ratification by 25 member states began. For years, European political elites have happily worked at creating a European superstate without worrying much about what European publics wanted. They knew that under some national constitutions--Denmark's, Ireland's, etc.--the treaty would be put to a vote, and they knew that these countries might get difficult and throw the treaty out, as had happened in the past. But it was generally assumed such minor setbacks from such insignificant states could happily be ignored, as had also happened in the past.

In April of last year, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a referendum on the subject would be held. In Britain, the E.U. is currently about as popular as Belgian pop music. Increasing numbers view the constitution as the most serious blow yet to British national identity and sovereignty. Blair's decision has had dramatic consequences in the rest of Europe. A number of governments that had been hoping to slide the constitution past their own publics decided they too had better hold a formal consultation.

Most fatefully, French president Jacques Chirac decided that, for the first time since it voted on a single European currency 13 years ago, France, too, needed a referendum. So it is that France now finds itself in the unusual and exquisitely ironic position of threatening the entire European project of which it has been the most energetic backer. Opinion polls suggest the nation is evenly split ahead of the May 29 vote, with momentum shifting almost daily between the Yes and the No camps. Whatever the French decide, two days later, on June 1, the Dutch will vote. Opinion polls there suggest a slight advantage for the No camp. Then, later this year, tricky votes are expected in the Czech Republic and Poland; after those comes Denmark, and, sometime next spring, in what may be the biggest test of all, British voters will have their say.

After reluctantly agreeing to consult the people, the European Union's leaders now have absolutely no idea what to do if the people vote No. In the last few days, European leaders have looked like Keystone Kops as they've tried to give a coherent answer to the question, What next?