Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A victory for extremism? Constitutional ratification and the future of Europe

Most of the attention will continue to be focused on France, but today's "No" vote in the Netherlands, a sound rejection of the European Constitution, is much more meaningful in terms of public opinion on what Chirac yesterday called "the European ideal".

Indeed, what's interesting is that the "No" votes in France and the Netherlands are largely unconnected. As I argued in a couple of recent posts (see here and here), the French vote was largely a revolt against the elites from the extreme left and right, compounded by widespread dissatisfaction with the economy and with Chirac personally. In addition, as David Bell suggests in a good piece in TNR, it had as much to do with class (i.e., a class-based revolt against the elites) as with nationalism and xenophobia. The Dutch vote is similarly a revolt against the elites, but it seems to be more broad-based across the spectrum and more directly focused on the concept of Europe itself (or at least what Europe has become in recent years, well past simple economic union) -- and on the feeling of being pushed around by the elites, specifically the larger European powers.

The Dutch result, to me, is far more significant, not least because the Dutch have always been more united around Europe than the more diverse French (with their well-established traditions of nationalism and xenophobia). In other words, the French vote really didn't send much of a message (except to Chirac), whereas the Dutch vote, once final, will. The French will no doubt push on with Europe (they've tied their national self-interest to the European ideal, and that isn't about to change, with or without Chirac), but the Dutch have expressed the very real concern that Europe as a social and political union is profoundly undemocratic and, at the moment, overstretched. Maybe it's their proximity to Belgium, but they seem to have sensed that Europe has become a Brussels-run Leviathan governed by unelected technocrats. Their message is the one pro-Europeans need to listen to.

Also, the Dutch vote shouldn't come as much of a surprise, despite their long-standing Europhilia. This may sound like a facile generalization, but the Netherlands is sort of like the Vermont (or, in Canadian terms, the British Columbia) of Europe. The Dutch, that is, tend to go their own way.

More from Bell, which explains just what's wrong with the Constitution (and with what Europe has become):

There was also understandable confusion and resentment in the face of a document hundreds of pages long, written in grinding bureaucratese, and mentioning matters as specific as coffee prices, while providing no means for its own amendment or revocation. While the constitution took this form because it codified earlier treaties, this did not change the fact that it was tedious and rebarbative. And then there was the almost irresistible urge to stick a thumb in the eye of Jacques Chirac, who campaigned in 1995 on a promise to lower an unemployment rate that hovered around 10 percent. Ten years later, the rate has barely budged. If Chirac had really wanted the French to vote yes, the comics predictably quipped, he should have campaigned strenuously against it.

Yet most important, perhaps, was the simple problem that French elites could give the rest of the population no strong reason to vote yes. Mostly, they resorted to the shibboleth that they were building Europe. Except they forgot that "Europe" means very different things to different segments of the populations. It means one thing to well-off professionals who vacation in Italy or Spain, send their children to Britain or Germany on educational exchanges, and routinely interact with their counterparts from other members states of the EU. To them, earlier steps in building Europe, such as the introduction of the Euro three years ago or the establishment of university exchange networks, have had a palpable, beneficial effect. But to wage earners who do not attend university and can barely afford to travel, Europe remains far more of an abstraction, and a threatening one--the idea, not entirely false by any means, that decisions that affect their livelihoods are going to be made even further from home.

Among the best reasons for voting yes was the argument that the Constitution would make the existing EU work better, providing it with a president, with a more responsible parliament, with better-defined governing institutions. Presented more forcefully, it might conceivably have carried the day. Yet the only way to have made this case with real force would have been to criticize the existing institutions, to have run against them, to have denounced them as the distant and overly bureaucratic morasses that they often are. But to do this would have been to admit that mistakes were made in the past, and made in large part by the French elites who have been the greatest driving force behind the EU. Needless to say, this was not done.

The project of building the E.U. has indeed "stalled," and the ratification process may have fragmented Europe "in profound and troubling ways," but not for good. Europe (and the E.U.) will go on. Indeed, I agree with Efraim Karsh's assessment, also in TNR: "France's vote against the constitution is an important victory for European unity, because the document posed a serious threat to the great European experiment in peace and prosperity. What began 53 years ago as an idealistic attempt to use economic cooperation to heal a war-torn continent has deteriorated with the passage of time into a gigantic imperial machinery that has largely eroded the democratic values and objectives for which it was originally established." And:

So not only does the frenzied rush toward integration risk turning the EU from an egalitarian community of states into an imperial ogre, but it predicates the organization on a negative footing--challenging U.S. global power--rather than giving it a positive rationale. Should their resounding non lead to a more modest EU, French voters will have done their continent a favor. For if history tells us anything it is that imperial overextension is a recipe for disaster--a destroyer, rather than a guarantor, of peace and unity. The version of the EU constitution voted down on Sunday was an imperial document, not a democratic one. Europe and the European Union are both better off without it.

Yes, they are. As I've indicated here before, I'm a Euro-skeptic, but not anti-European. I -- and everyone who cares about the future of Europe, a healthy Europe with a strong constitutional footing -- owes the French (ironically, the extremes of French society) a hearty Merci!

Or do we. One last word from Philip Gordon, yet again in TNR:

Obviously, even a massive vote in favor of the constitution would not have solved Europe's many problems or transformed the EU into a happily multicultural, pro-American economic dynamo. But it would be a mistake not to notice that the rejection of the constitution is a setback, rather than a triumph, for the United States and the principles that currently undergird its foreign policy. "Vive la France!" wrote [Bill] Kristol [in The Weekly Standard], in celebrating the prospect that the constitution would go down to defeat. I hope I am proven wrong, but I suspect that a few years from now, neither Kristol nor most other Americans will look back fondly on the show of political strength by French extremists--left and right--we have just witnessed. When you find yourself cheering the triumph of nationalists, populists, and communists, suspicion is in order.

Well, no. Gleeful anti-European conservatives like Kristol may be happy to see Europe go down in flames no matter what, but more sober observers realize that the Constitution's loss may, in the end, be Europe's win. The simple point is, Europe needs a better constitution, and this fortuitous result in France may end up being, well, a blessing in disguise.

No, I'm not "cheering the triumph" of extremists, I'm hoping for a moderate and more democratic Europe. It's a Merci! in spite of (and to spite) the extremists.

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