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Issue Date:  June 17, 2005

European union not a foregone conclusion

Public weighs the benefits and costs of integration

Brussels, Belgium

The French and Dutch rejections of the European Constitution has opened a serious crisis within the European Union. European leaders meeting in Brussels June 16 and 17 will be struggling to identify the causes of this rejection, and the actions they take will determine if the union bounces back -- as it has so often in the past -- or if European integration freezes in place for years to come.

The European Union has suffered many setbacks in its 50-year march to integration. The most marked setback was France’s rejection of the European Defense Community back in 1954 because it feared the rearmament of Germany.

Since then other treaties have suffered limited rejections, such as the 1993 rejection by Denmark of the Maastricht Treaty which established the Euro and the union, or the Nice Treaty, which had to be voted on twice in 2001 by Ireland. None of these rejections stopped European integration -- partly because the opposition did not come from a founding state.

What makes the most recent rejections exceptional is their commanding majority in two founding member states: Fifty-five percent of French voters and 62 percent of Dutch voters said no. The unambiguous rejection of the constitution caused Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende to announce that his government wished to “open the debate” over Europe’s future with the Dutch population.

Causes of the rejection

It was precisely a lack of public debate on Europe’s future that European voters are responding to, according to Pierre Verluise, a French political scientist and author of Geopolitics of the European Union: The EU enlargement, what it will change? (Ellipses, 2005). The historical process by which Europe was built, Verluise said, “is the result of a mode of functioning and of a process of construction that took place without a public debate.”

Verluise said that because of this lack of debate, the European Union came to be seen in the popular perception as constructed by and for the elites. The “people on the street” felt the Union is costing them much and bringing them little and this, according to Verluise, accounts for public opinion boomeranging against European integration.

Bronislaw Geremek, a Polish member of the European Parliament and a former adviser to the Solidarnosc union and a former Polish foreign affairs minister, called the French no the expression of “a lack of hope in the European Union” and of “disappointment” in the enlargement to the East.

Verluise agreed with Geremek and added that even the younger generations who had been favorable to Europe joined the majority “no” vote.

Alain Wijffels, a professor of European constitutional history at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, lectures on legal history at several universities in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. He found “a correlation between the blue-collar vote and the rejection of the constitution, particularly in areas where unemployment is high.”

But Wijffels pointed out that “even among highly educated voters, it has become fashionable to take a stand against European integration.” He said these groups feel their social benefits are under threat.

Wijffels said French debate about the referendum took a “surrealistic turn” with the rise of the “Polish plumber,” an apocryphal story about the mass immigration of low-wage Eastern European laborers taking jobs from workers in the West. Verluise said, “The ‘Polish plumber’ was a popular fantasy” perpetuated by opponents of constitution. He noted that the movement of Eastern workers is restricted by the integration treaties, but the story nevertheless caught the imagination of voters.

People long to “restore the bygone national system,” he said.

Lost ‘grandeur’

The French no also had to do with the French being disillusioned by their loss of “grandeur.” “When France accepted the European Community, it was considered as a means for recouping the power lost during the decolonization process,” Verluise said. But in the eyes of the French public, this objective was never realized he said.

“Germany weighs more than France in the European Union,” he said, “and even though it is not a member of this union, the United States continues to play an important role.”

In the Netherlands, the no vote originated in “a combination of several factors,” according to Albert-Jan Maat, a part of the Dutch delegation to the European Parliament and a member of the Christen Democratisch Appel, the party of the Dutch prime minister. “It was the introduction of the Euro, the enlargement to the East, Turkey. ... It was too much, too fast,” Maat said.

The initial negotiations with Turkey, in particular, created great outrage, allegedly because of the “Christian identity” of the Dutch people, Maat said. Even though church attendance in the Netherlands is among the lowest in Europe, “50 to 60 percent of the [Dutch] people are still religious” and maintain a Christian identity at heart, Maat said.

Wijffels agreed that negative reactions to Turkey’s joining the union was “probably linked to a general, though still fairly diffuse feeling of being threatened by Islamic culture,” though he also suspects some racist motivations.

The irony is that the rejection of the constitution does not close the door to Turkey, said Frédéric Dopagne, research assistant in European and international law at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, though he concedes that Turkey’s joining the union is probably now unlikely from a political point of view.

Lack of leadership

Maat said the reason for the Dutch no is ultimately to be found in a “lack of leadership.” He said nobody had “the courage to tell the Dutch voters the truth, namely that [the Netherlands] earned more from the enlargement to the East” than they lost by the transfers of European funds to Eastern members.

Since the no vote, demands have mounted in the Netherlands “to get their money back” from the European Union, since the Netherlands is a net contributor to the European budget.

“We collect about 1.5 billion Euros [US$1.8 billion] in import taxes, and we have to give a part of that money to the EU. We are saying that part of that is our money,” Maat said.

Talk of money promises to be harsh between the European leaders in Brussels: A number of states are keen on reducing their contributions to the European budget, but this could mean cuts in aid to the Eastern member states, a gloomy prospect for them, and a sign of “materialistic selfishness” of the West, according to Wijffels.

Deciding the fate of the constitution may come down to a choice between prolonged agony or a quick death.

Under the first scenario, the referendum process would be prolonged until November 2006. According to André Dumoulin, a researcher at the Belgian Royal Military School, if fewer than five states reject the constitution as written, the European heads of state then can take it up. They could decide that the states that have already adopted the constitution may advance on the path to political integration as an “enhanced cooperation,” leaving France and the Netherlands behind.

However, this solution may have been forestalled by British Foreign Minister Jack Straw’s announcement June 6 that the United Kingdom was suspending its referendum.

Another solution would be killing the treaty at this month’s meeting in Brussels and beginning a search for another way to save the union.

Dopagne believes that rejecting the constitution will have “no immediate consequences on the daily functioning of the European Union institutions. We continue to work with the Nice Treaty, which is and will remain in force. This treaty seems to work well up to now.”

However, Dumoulin warns that the rejection of the constitution would be “the most disastrous thing that could happen,” because it would signal the loss of the “common values” contained in the preamble to the constitution.

Taking cues from some European leaders, Dumoulin and Dopagne said renegotiating the whole constitution, as demanded by proponents of the no vote in France, is highly unlikely.

While Maat doesn’t believe “pieces” of the constitution could be adopted, Dumoulin and Dopagne said that the parts of the constitution that went uncontested, such as the common security and defense policy, could be incorporated through intergovernmental negotiations outside the framework of the European Union.

Dopagne added that the disorder resulting from rejecting the constitution would hurt Europe in major international questions. For example, he said that just as the United States seems to be “stretching out its hand” to Europe on the question of Iran’s nuclear capacities, Europe is “losing credibility” with Iran by tearing itself apart.

“The failure of the constitution condemns Europe to be helpless in front of the U.S.,” Verluise said, and Dumoulin and Dopagne concurred.

“There are many opportunities in this brave new world, but it looks as if Europe will miss them all,” Wijffels concluded.

Marc Mazgon-Fernandes is a freelance journalist who writes from Brussels.

National Catholic Reporter, June 17, 2005

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