IN THE FACE OF AN arrogant, out-of-touch, debate-stifling old regime, a whiff of democracy can be liberating. And not just in the Middle East.
Whatever the outcome of the French referendum on the European Union's constitution on Sunday, May 29, and the Dutch vote on Wednesday, June 1, it is already clear (as we go to press Friday, before the votes) that the public debate over the referenda, and the real possibility of a "No" vote, could prove to have been a liberating experience for Europeans.
Leave aside the dubious merits of the constitution itself. The Economist, normally pro-European and somewhat pro-establishment, has called for rejection of the constitution because "the central thrust of the document is towards more centralization," which it correctly thinks a bad idea. But the debate hasn't hinged on questions of E.U. governance. It has turned on something more fundamental--a collapse of confidence in the political and media establishment in France and the Netherlands, and in Western Europe altogether.
It's hard for Americans to appreciate just how out-of-touch the establishment (and it really is a single establishment) of Paris, Berlin, the Hague, and Brussels is. Its arrogance almost beyond belief. Former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the father of the 448-article constitution, early on in the campaign dismissed complaints about the document's opacity by assuring his countrymen, "The text is easily read and quite well phrased, which I can say all the more easily since I wrote it myself." As Ivan Rioufol of Le Figaro, writing in the Wall Street Journal, commented, "The French didn't know whether he was simply cynical or unaware of the absurdity of his statement. And so he became a caricature of the self-obsessed, aloof politician."
On the other hand, Holland's Europe minister, Atzo Nicolai, a supporter of the constitution, acknowledges that "people say that too many important changes have been made without real debate--and they are right about that." So the debate over the constitution opens up the prospect for a broader debate, and a chance for wider rethinking--of Europe's failing welfare states and growth-stultifying, upward-mobility-denying economies; of its failing immigration and multiculturalism policies; of its anti-Americanism and coolness to the cause of freedom and democracy around the world; of its failure to be serious about the threats confronting it and us. All of these are now legitimate subjects of public discussion.
For Americans to grasp the character of the moment, it helps to think back to the early 1990s. Think of the collapse of New York city under David Dinkins and of liberal urban policies generally. Think of the House banking scandal, and the out-of-touch first Bush administration, and the Democratic party's ritualistic liberalism. Then think of 1992: The Perot phenomenon was akin to the revolt against the E.U. constitution--noisy, confused, but not meaningless.
The good news for America is that the discontent of the early 1990s produced a Rudy Giuliani to govern New York, a Bill Clinton to (temporarily) redefine the Democratic party, and a Newt Gingrich to revitalize the Republicans. In Europe today, there are signs of Clinton-Giuliani-Gingrich-ism in the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy in France, and of some fresh-thinking young (dare I call them) neoconservatives and neoliberals throughout Europe.
But so far the fresh thinkers haven't been able to break through. It is as if it were in 1996, and there had been no Clintonian redefinition of the Democrats, and Bob Michel were still leading the House Republicans, and there had been no Giuliani mayoralty in New York, and no welfare reform from Congress, and no American intervention in Bosnia--and the alternative news media were still in their infancy, and no academic counterculture had emerged. That's Europe today.
Europe deserves better than the political class and the political discourse (to use a European formulation) that it has been stuck with. In this respect, the leftists rallying in Paris against the constitution last Wednesday were right to insist that their "No" was "A hopeful No." This is a moment of hope--for the prospects for a strong, pro-American, pro-liberty, more or less free-market and free-trade, socially and morally reinvigorated Europe. In any case, as Le Figaro's Ivan Rioufol suggests, the referendum, whatever its outcome, has already had a "liberating effect." Rioufol explains, "It introduced freedom of speech into the French political debate. Until now, the political oligarchy and the media's politically correct group-think had silenced any critical mind. . . . The people's revolt and their demand for 'true talk' are sweeping away the old political scene and its political correctness."
What is true of France is true of Europe as a whole. What will follow this week's votes is unclear. But the French people may be securing for themselves, and others in Europe, an opportunity for fresh thought and action. Vive la France!