Year XLVII, 2005, Number 2, Page 61
France and Netherlands’ Rejection of this Europe
In late Spring, this year, unexpected clouds gathered over the European Union. In referenda held, respectively, on May 29th and on June 2nd, 2005, 54 per cent of French voters and 64 per cent of Dutch voters rejected the “Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe”. Two weeks later, on June 17th, the heads of state and of government, meeting in Brussels, were forced to acknowledge the profound differences that still see them divided over the future funding of the European Union, and to put off to less turbulent times any attempt to find a solution to this problem.
The worried reactions of the Europeanists reflect the excessive hopes invested in the constitutional Treaty which, they believed, would have increased considerably the Union’s capacity to act and given it broader democratic legitimacy. In truth, given the way the Union operates, rejection of the constitutional Treaty will not have the dramatic repercussions many predict. The entry into force of the “‘Constitution” — which, in any case, would not have taken place until 2009 or even until as late as 2012 — would not have affected the European institutions’ decision-making mechanisms in anything more than a marginal way and, in particular, would have left the national governments’ powers in the sectors of security, foreign policy, economic policy and taxation entirely intact, thereby perpetuating the Union’s current weakness.
When all is said and done, clashes over the funding of Community policies have always been a feature of the process of European unification. If, at the present time, these clashes have been made all the more bitter by the fact that even the richest nations, faced with insufficient growth, are having greater difficulty meeting the costs of enlargement, this merely means that efforts to find a compromise will have to be stepped up, not that the Union’s machinery will grind to a permanent halt.
Nevertheless, there is a widespread feeling that Europe is now one of the most severe crises of the past fifty years, and unless it is able to find an effective solution, it risks moving towards its own disintegration. If this is true, it means that the process of European unification has reached a crucial crossroads and that we must carefully analyse the causes of the present situation in order, if possible, to remedy them.
The French and Dutch citizens who rejected the constitutional Treaty did not reject Europe per se: they rejected this Europe: this fragile and inefficient construction, beset by differences, that is proving increasingly unable to fulfil the citizens’ expectations. In recent years, the European Union has faced some tough tests, and it has failed all of them. The vast majority of Europeans did not support the war in Iraq, yet the European Union proved unable to prevent not only the dispatching of troops by some European governments, but also the serious split that opened up between “old” and “new” Europe. The economy is recording weak growth, or no growth at all, particularly in the “big” European nations, but the European institutions are proving incapable of mobilising the financial, technological and human resources (which Europe actually possesses in abundance) that are needed to counter the current decline, to reduce unemployment and to rise successfully to the challenges of globalisation. The European Union has extended its borders and offered a safe haven to the countries of Eastern Europe, but at the same time it has failed to create efficient political structures able to ensure cohesion among countries with different levels of economic and social development.
In the face of the great transformations that today’s world is going through, the people of Europe are feeling increasingly vulnerable: on the one hand, the national governments have shown themselves to be powerless to manage processes that have long since taken on global proportions, and on the other, the European Union, with no real capacity to act, has suffered the negative consequences of globalisation and global disorder, sliding inexorably to the fringes of international politics. China and India are now the United States’ preferred interlocutors, while the European Union, humiliatingly, is little more than a go-between between Iran and the United States on the nuclear issue, and the fact that the final decisions will be taken in Washington and not in Brussels can escape no one.
For their part, the national politicians have always been quick to heap the responsibility for their own failures on the European Union, and this has encouraged the citizens to believe that Europe, with its oppressive bureaucracy and rigid directives, is the real obstacle to growth. And there is more. Some Europeans believe that the European Union has also failed to prevent the invasion of so-called Polish plumbers, the indiscriminate axing of jobs, and the relocation of more and more production activities — a belief that has further weakened their faith in the future.
The outcome of the French referendum can certainly be attributed, in part, to internal causes. Part of the electorate saw it as the opportunity to pass judgement on Chirac and his policies, whereas the socialists, already with an eye to the next elections, were involved in some fierce clashes. However, it would be a serious mistake to interpret the results of the French referendum purely in national terms, just as it would be wrong to claim that the only thing the French rejected was the “Constitution”, a text so long, complex and contradictory that few can have read it and fewer still understood it. For the citizens of France and the Netherlands, these referenda constituted the first chance, since Maastricht, to express their approval or disapproval of this Europe in which they live, and they were not going to waste this opportunity to register their dissatisfaction.
But this does not mean that Europe’s citizens have suddenly become Eurosceptics. On the contrary, surveys show that most of those interviewed still believe in the European project. The problem, then, is not so much Europe itself as what Europe. Should Europe be an unregulated free trade area of the kind the UK continues to strive for, or a Europe based on cohesion and solidarity? Should it be a divided Europe that political and economic globalisation is pushing to the fringes of history, or a strong Europe, able to help solve the dramatic and pressing problems our planet? Should it be a Europe based on the intergovernmental method — this is what, to a large extent, it has been so far — or a Union destined to evolve into a federal state, in accordance with the wishes of its founding fathers? These are questions of fundamental importance, because whereas it is possible to create a free trade area while leaving national sovereignties intact, it is no longer possible to guarantee cohesion, and strength in the absence of an indissoluble federal bond between the Union’s member states, in other words, without the creation of a European federal state.
One might have thought that this double rejection of the “Constitution” would have prompted the governments, parliaments, politicians and pro-European movements to speak out quickly, to reassure public opinion that the European project has not died a death, but merely needs some new lifeblood injecting into it (in particular, it needs a solution to the institutional problems that brought it to a standstill after the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty). The perfect opportunity to speak out came with the European Council of June 16th-17th which, meeting to discuss the EU budget for 2007-2013, obviously could not fail to comment also on the results of the two referenda. After two days of intensive negotiations, the summit ended with a decision to “freeze” the constitutional Treaty, postponing by one year — to 2007 — the deadline for its ratification in the various countries, and with such marked disagreement over EU funding that the general impression created was one of a Europe skidding completely off course.
Those who expected a lucid analysis of the reasons for this impasse, and a determination to overcome it by speeding up the process of unification, like those who expected concrete suggestions as regards the next steps that should be taken, were disappointed. But, in truth, the outcome of the summit was a foregone conclusion. The results of these referenda and of the debate on the EU budget finally gave the United Kingdom its long-awaited opportunity to attempt to sideline the “old” Europe and to rebuild, on new foundations, this European Union that is incapable of rising to the challenges of globalisation. Tony Blair, without too much ado, said as much at the close of the summit, and he reiterated his message shortly afterwards during his unveiling, before the European Parliament, of Britain’s programme for its six-month presidency of the European Union. In the space of just a few days, the British prime minister had harvested the fruits of the poisonous seeds that the United Kingdom has been planting ever since it joined the European Community, and now he is bent on extinguishing the last glimmers of Community spirit that still survive within some of Europe’s Six founder member states.
The British design is clear to see and, should it prevail, Europe’s fate will be sealed, especially as, in such a situation, the forces for re-nationalisation — pressure for re-nationalisation is growing and has even culminated in the absurd call for a return of the national currencies in place of the euro — would find ever weaker obstacles in their path. On the other hand, the re-nationalisation of European policies is more than just a perverse whim: if the Union indeed proves unable to contain the current crisis and to get the economy back on its feet, then it is inevitable that the citizens will look to their own governments to meet their expectations, and the governments will have no choice but to respond by introducing measures of some kind or another, however ineffective. The citizens of Europe thus find themselves forced to face this particularly turbulent phase in world history — the creation of a new international equilibrium and the globalisation of the economy — caught between the impotence of the nation-states and the inefficiency of the European Union.
The fact that Europe has thus far managed to preserve its fragile unity can be attributed to the fact that domestic and international pressures have not yet grown great enough to shatter it. But they soon may and the one way to avert this danger is to carry through to completion the process of unification started over half a century ago. The governments and the national parliaments, the European Parliament and the European Commission tried to get round this problem by promising the citizens a “Constitution” that would serve to guarantee political unity. In actual fact, the constitutional Treaty would only have streamlined certain decision-making processes, tinkered with the powers of the European Parliament, and authorised new forms of cooperation between countries wishing to move forward more quickly (thereby implicitly acknowledging the existence of a variable-speed Europe). As its authors themselves have reiterated a number of times, the “Constitution” was born of a compromise that did not affect the nation-states’ competences in the sectors that lie at the heart of any state power: foreign policy, security, economic policy and taxation.
History shows us that problems can be put off, but never avoided altogether: sooner or later, the day of reckoning will come. The outcome of the two constitutional referenda are not the cause of Europe’s current difficulties, only an indicator of the citizens’ dissatisfaction with a Europe that, after Maastricht, has come to a standstill because there remain no significant intermediate steps that can be taken prior to the founding of a European federal state. This is the reality on which the governments have run aground, and it is the reason why they have recorded one miserable failure after another.
To overcome this obstacle there has to be a clear awareness of the alternatives that the people of Europe now have before them: either they can re-start the process of European unification through the implementation of a courageous and far-sighted design, or they can resign themselves, perhaps unconsciously, to their continent’s inexorable decline. The first of these options is not easy because the European Union, through its progressive enlargement, has lost its initial compactness and forgotten that its founding fathers envisaged Europe as a federation, not as a general community. Today, it is inconceivable that the federal design which the European Union so desperately needs can emerge within the ambit of the current twenty-five member states. Furthermore, to the old British hostility, we can now add that of the Union’s new member states, countries that are unwilling to sacrifice their newly regained sovereignty — albeit illusory sovereignty — on the altar of Europe. On the other hand, it is possible that there still stirs within the ambit of the Six, and in France and Germany in particular, a faint sense of their historical responsibility and that this might ignite a spark similar to the one that, in the 1950s, with the birth of the Communities, finally brought “European civil wars” to an end. Then, France and Germany proved courageous enough to lay the past to rest, paving the way for the process of European unification. Today, the countries that first set out on that European journey over half a century ago are very same ones that can set the process moving towards its completion, by promoting the formation of a federal core that will be open to all the states that will remain open to all the states that will wish to be part of it.
Perfectly compatible with the objectives pursued by the other members of the European Union, which would preserve the acquis communautaire, this initiative is not an attempt — as some fear — to dismantle that which has been built so far. On the contrary, its aim is to create the conditions that will allow the process of unification to be re-started on a more solid basis. The power of attraction of the federal core would be such that even those countries initially hostile to the idea would eventually; join, which is exactly what happened in the process of European unification.
The federal core is not an idea that has come from nowhere. Many political leaders have expressed their conviction that the formation of a vanguard is crucial if the process of European unification is to be put back on track. However, these leaders, not having matured a full awareness of the need to found a federal state, are still conditioned by the intergovernmental cooperation approach, and envisage the task of the vanguard from this perspective. Having said that, the question of the vanguard is coming repeatedly to the fore, and it is no coincidence that it continues to be raised in France and Germany (one might consider, for example, the article by German CDU member, Karl Lamers, which appeared in Internationale Politik in July 2005, and the interview given by French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, published in Le Monde on September 24th, 2005).
And so it is up to federalists — the only political group conscious of the nature of the problem to be solved and of the urgent need to find an effective solution — to go on promoting the federal core strategy, and the federal state as its only possible outcome, so that both will be to the forefront should Europe’s crisis become acute and the European Union find itself on the brink of collapse.