The French said non, the Dutch said nee, and despite eighteen other official languages to choose from the Eurocrats were rendered temporarily speechless. The rejection of the European Constitution in late May and early June referendums in France and the Netherlands was the most predictable shock in the history of European integration.
The polls had long forewarned the results. Yet to imagine that two of the European Union’s founding members and most loyal devotees would take a torch to the house they themselves had built was more than the Europhiles could bear. There was no plan B.
The Constitution aimed to streamline and cohere all previous EU treaties following the accession of ten new members in 2004 so that the EU could operate more efficiently and talk to the rest of the world with one consistent voice. It would have completed the transition, at a breakneck speed of just over a decade, from a free-trade area of twelve nations similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement to a multinational body of twenty-five countries where millions would share a court of human rights, the same-color passports, an official flag, an official currency and an official anthem (Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”).
But it had to be ratified by all member states. By May 29 nine had already done so, although only Spain had taken it to the people in a referendum. With the French and Dutch rejections, it has been temporarily put on ice, its future now uncertain. Along with it in the deep freeze goes the hope of some on the left that the EU might emerge as a more progressive geopolitical bloc that could check or challenge America’s global hegemony.
For this setback, however, we should all be thankful. While the aim of pooling the resources of relatively small European nations to challenge more effectively the excesses of US supremacy, including war and rigged markets, is laudable, the undemocratic means by which the EU has chosen to go about it are lamentable.
The only thing more staggering than the pace of European integration over the past fifteen years has been the lack of accountability that has gone with it. Neither the president of the European Commission nor any of the commissioners, who wield most power in the EU, are elected. They are selected in rounds of horse trading by national governments on the basis of political patronage. Indeed, the European Parliament, the only directly elected component of the EU, cannot even initiate legislation. This explains why turnout for EU elections is even lower than for US presidential elections–45.5 percent last year.
There are some good things in the Constitution, which would guarantee shelter, education, collective bargaining for labor and fair working conditions. But a somewhat progressive agenda that has been imposed has less credibility than a reactionary one that has been chosen. The lack of democracy leads ineluctably to a lack of legitimacy. Unable to influence the pace, scale or direction of integration, many Europeans have become alienated from it.
Their despondency, while clearly widespread, found little or no expression in the mainstream electoral politics of either country. In the Netherlands 85 percent of parliamentarians were in favor of a yes vote, along with the employers associations, unions and almost all the newspapers. In France the establishment was similarly aligned. So the victory for the no campaigns reveals a profound dislocation between the political class and the political culture. The margins, in effect, became the mainstream. This posed challenges and opportunities for the left in both countries.
The two principal forces mobilizing the no vote were the far right (including fascists and other assorted nationalists) and the hard left (including Trotskyists, Communists, environmentalists and antiglobalization protesters). The former, which dominated the campaign in the Netherlands, circled the wagons around an ossified and xenophobic sense of nationhood, exploiting fears of open borders, Turkish accession and the threat to national identity. The latter, which had most traction in France, slammed the EU’s free-market foundations, which will allow machines to chase the cheapest labor around the continent. The left did not shut the door on the Constitution altogether but argued for a body that would be more relevant, responsive, democratic and worker-friendly with the slogan, “A Different Europe Is Possible.”
It is precisely with this agenda that the European left should now enter negotiations on the current, uncertain future of European integration. Beyond a slide in the euro and the meltdown in both countries, the effects will be long term. The European Constitution is dead, but the European project will continue.
The desire to forge a more progressive counterbalance to a unipolar world with the United States at the helm is a sound one. But it won’t be progressive unless it is built with the consent of those in whose name it has been created. The problem with American power is not that it is American but that, both at home and abroad, it backs the powerful against the weak and supports democracy only when democracy supports America. If Europe wants to confront that it must offer more democracy, not less. By saying no, the French and Dutch certainly slowed the European juggernaut. That was the first crucial step in putting it back on the right track.