Wealth of Nations May 2005

How France Might Astound Europe—and Do It Some Good

It appears that French voters are going to reject the new European Union constitution. What will that mean for Europe?

If you have even a passing interest in the future of Europe, May 29 is a date for your calendar. That is when France will hold its referendum on the European Union's new constitution. Recently, to the dismay of the French political elite and the consternation of Euro-visionaries across the Union, opinion polls have been indicating that the hitherto unthinkable is going to happen: It appears that France, ever in the vanguard of European integration, is going to vote no. Suppose the polls are right and the French do reject the new constitution. What will that mean for Europe?

Please don't ask Europe's governments. They are so aghast at this prospect that they can only express incomprehension over its meaning. The idea that they might have to dump their draft constitution is literally too terrible for them to contemplate. The Union therefore has no Plan B. Leaders are imploring the citizens of France to change their minds and do the right thing because there is simply no alternative.

This, of course, is the E.U.'s normal method of winning "consent" for its torrent of constitutional, political, and economic innovations. Each is presented to the Union's citizens not only as a done deal, but as the only deal that could possibly have been done, and as the only basis on which the E.U. can even stay in business, let alone flourish. Whenever Europe's governments deign to put their plans for the Union to a national vote, it is not to allow their citizens to exercise a choice over their future. It is to sanctify the choice that their government has already made for them—no other option being thinkable.

Accordingly, governments have tended to call for a vote only when they were sure of the result. That was certainly the case with France's referendum on the constitution—hence the current gnashing of teeth. When leaders have expected public opinion to oppose some new venture and force Europe's leaders to think again, they have deemed votes to be unnecessary.

Some kind of new constitution for the European Union is undoubtedly called for. Even the Union's legal draftsmen barely comprehend the existing quasi-constitution, which lies somewhere in the interstices of a long and complex series of treaties. It cannot hope to do what the U.S. Constitution does—serve as an accessible and intelligible statement of the principles by which political power is created, distributed, and held accountable.

Since the European Union is already in some respects a sovereign power—but one that its citizens perceive as being very remote from them—it too needs a simple statement of its constitutional identity. Also, on a more humdrum level, the treaties defining the Union's powers were framed with a much smaller group of nations in mind. Now that the E.U. has 25 members and counting, new rules are needed to smooth its day-to-day operations.

To be fair, the new constitution that the Union is asking Europe's legislatures and (in some cases) voters to ratify does address some of those issues of management. Some of the changes it proposes on voting rules and similar matters are welcome. But in most other respects, the convention that drafted the document did an unforgivably awful job.

A wide-ranging popular debate about the European project is years overdue. The constitutional convention had an opportunity to lead that discussion, but threw it away. The constitutional document itself, though supposedly modeled on America's, is vast and impenetrable. Incredibly, it is hardly any clearer than the current tangle of separate treaties. It is obscure on the key question of the division of powers between the Union and its member-states. It is full of anomalies and inconsistencies. For instance, it defines certain rights, apparently viewing them as fundamental and universal, then confines them to specific groups, such as employees of the Union itself. The anomalies create a kind of built-in instability, because the kinks will have to be ironed out in due course by judicial action.

The constitution fails to settle many central questions. Very often it fails even to try. The instability is partly deliberate—in some cases, a way to smooth over disagreements; in others, a way to push the Union toward yet another round of constitutional reform. But what kind of clarity or reassurance can such a document offer Europe's citizens?

The new constitution certainly deserves to be rejected by Europe's voters—though admittedly, these are not the reasons, or not the only reasons, that the French might say no. France is nervous about the threat that an enlarged Europe poses to its distinctive model of government, which is centralized and interventionist, and to its economy. Its leadership role in the E.U. is under threat at the same time.

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