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The French 'No'

June 01, 2005

The French are in a deep, deep funk, traumatized by their nation's seemingly irreversible decline. That's the short answer as to why French voters on Sunday delivered a blow to the goal of an "ever closer" European Union in a referendum on a new constitution. The overwhelming "no" -- more than 55% of the vote on a day of extremely high turnout -- was an irrational decision that will erode France's claim to lead the union, and it does nothing to cure any of the ills underlying French insecurities.

France has always been a leading proponent of a European Union it could dominate, which is why Charles de Gaulle was once adamant about keeping the British out of it. Continental integration was the means for Paris to speak and act on Germany's behalf in the wake of World War II. But Sunday's vote was a protest against Jacques Chirac's leadership, high unemployment, vaguely defined Anglo-Saxon capitalism (of which France needs more rather than less) and the threat of "Polish plumbers" invading Paris thanks to the EU's enlargement.

The French funk goes deeper than most, but the fact that others in Europe share some of their anxiety is both unfortunate and predictable. Today, the Netherlands, another of the original European Economic Community's six members, may provide the coup de grace to the constitution -- voters there appear poised to vote it down as well. Nine other member nations have ratified the constitution, but it will not take effect without the approval of all 25 nations.

The decades-long consolidation of Europe, a treaty-driven process of stitching former adversaries together into a single economy, has been one of the signal achievements in modern history. What evolved from a joint steel-producing league into today's European Union helped turn the perennial battlefield of Western Europe into a haven of peace and prosperity.

The union not only cemented the peace between France and Germany, it also lifted living standards at Europe's periphery, in countries such as Spain and Ireland. The continent's horrifying first half of the 20th century helped focus Europe on the need to surrender a measure of sovereignty for the common good.

The fact that Europe's integration was as much a moral and historical imperative as an economic project explains both its success and the public backlash against it. The union was so imperative, it could not be entrusted entirely to the whims of public opinion. Statesmen such as Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand relentlessly pushed the European Union to assume more power, in ways people found hard to follow.

This resolve of its elites served Europe well, but also bred a feeling that the Brussels-based European government suffered from a "democratic deficit."

The EU constitution was drafted in part to address the fact that Europe's leaders had gotten ahead of its people in bringing the continent together. It would strengthen the power of the European Parliament, create an office of president and foreign minister, enumerate some individual rights and seek to streamline the union's decision-making.

The trouble is, by heralding the drafting of a constitution that plays catch-up to altered facts on the ground, Europe's leaders have only reminded their constituents that most of the big decisions have already been made without their input -- the creation of the single market, the introduction of a new currency, the eastward expansion to incorporate former Soviet satellites such as Poland and Hungary, and so on. As a comparison, imagine if Americans hadn't been offered their Constitution until the 1920s.

The European Union will no doubt survive this crisis and continue to serve as a successful model of a common market and transnational regulator. But the more ambitious political aims of European federalists -- those who would create a United States of Europe -- have suffered a crippling blow.

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