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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The French government has said there can be no renegotiation. If the constitution is rejected, it will be dead. It also mutters darkly that rejection would be a potentially terminal blow to the dreams of a united Europe. The German government, whose leading figures have been spending more time campaigning in France recently than running their own country (Germany does not have a provision for a referendum) says the matter is undecided and that the constitution can be revamped if necessary and put to another vote. In Britain, Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, has said that if the French vote No, then the whole process is over and there will be no need for a British referendum next year (conveniently letting Tony Blair off the hook of a looming personal disaster in the U.K. vote). But Blair's Europe minister has said that whatever happens in France, the British will still vote.

Part of the confusion about what on earth happens if the treaty is rejected is due to the fact that nobody can agree on what this constitution actually does. In France, the opposition is led by socialists and trade unionists who argue the new system will usher in a capitalist nightmare of longer working hours, low taxation, and free trade. To confuse matters, they are supported by conservative traditionalists who are urging a No vote as an attempt to keep Turkey out of the E.U. (The Turks have been promised negotiations about possible entry, but many Europeans, especially the French, are adamantly opposed.) In the Netherlands, the debate is more about resentment at the overweening powers of the large European states, especially France and Germany, and about the challenge of adjusting a multicultural Dutch society to the new demographically challenged Europe. In Britain, the opposition is well entrenched but diametrically the opposite of its counterparts in France, arguing that the constitution will produce a socialist nightmare that will saddle business with all kinds of regulations.

In this Babel of competing arguments and interpretations, what should a bewildered outsider make of the coming referenda? Americans have long looked on somewhat nonplussed at European squabbles. Is this just another incomprehensible comedy of manners that will not have much effect on the continuing narrative of an expanding and integrating European continent?

The key here is to remain focused on what the constitution would actually do. The constitution, in short, represents another big step toward a single European state. That state would not be, in spite of the fears whipped up by French socialists, some hideous model of Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism, but one firmly entrenched in the traditional European social-market model, one that would offer broad protections to workers and give pan-European regulators all kinds of new scope to practice their authority. It was designed, at least in part, to turn back the push, from new members in the East and from Britain, for freer markets and a more competitive business environment. In the political sphere, the constitution would generate a new impetus towards a single, unified European view in world affairs that would give considerable support to the Franco-German ambition to rebalance global power away from the United States--and it would limit the ability of individual European nations to support the United States.

In short, if you think that what Europe needs is more regulation, more social protection, and less competition; if you think it needs to build up and strengthen the supranational state with political institutions accountable to almost no one; and if you think the world needs a united Europe led by a narrow group of politicians intent on challenging U.S. power, then you are definitely hoping the constitution beats the odds and clears all the popular hurdles that await it in the next year. If, on the other hand, you doubt the merits of that sort of Europe, you may be offering a silent prayer, perhaps for the first time in your life, that you are in solidarity with a majority of French opinion at least for one day this coming weekend.

Gerard Baker, U.S. editor of the Times of London, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.