Wealth of Nations June 2005

After 'Non' and 'Nee,' Where Does Europe Go Now?

In rejecting the new European constitution, voters in France and the Netherlands have done themselves and their fellow citizens of the European Union a great favor.

In rejecting the new European constitution, voters in France and the Netherlands have done themselves and their fellow citizens of the European Union a great favor. One sign of just how much Europe's leaders needed this punch in the face was their remarkably inept response to the votes. The expectation that the Union would be run to suit its leaders and civil servants, regardless of the wishes of its peoples, had become so deeply ingrained that popular rejection of the planned constitution resulted in total intellectual paralysis. The referendum result had looked possible, at the very least, for weeks. It still reduced France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder to a kind of gibbering idiocy.

How come? Because, when it comes to the European Union (very different from domestic politics in the respective member states), this was a completely new experience. The leaders did not get their way. The outcome rendered them speechless. Only a badly broken polity—one that urgently needs fixing—can breed that kind of reaction.

Looking forward, it appears that the no votes have thrown the whole European project into crisis. In a way, that is true, although it would be more accurate to say that the leadership's reaction to those votes is mainly to blame. The reaction may yet plunge the enterprise into even deeper difficulty.

People who voted against the new constitution in the French and Dutch referendums did so for a mixture of reasons—just like those who voted in favor. In France, the strange idea that the new constitution would entrench a brutal Anglo-American species of capitalism often came to the fore. (My reaction to that fear was, "If only.") In both France and the Netherlands, voters were also worried about their weak economies, their stagnant living standards, immigration, and other issues. A desire to punish their leaders, for domestic reasons as much as for the leaders' views on the future of Europe, also played a part. But none of this means that the referendum verdicts were an inaccurate or occluded take on what most European citizens think about the issue at hand—Europe's constitutional identity. That issue underlies many of the others, and the referendums gave the citizens an opportunity to pronounce directly upon it.

Europe's present constitutional arrangements are a scandal. This is not because the constitutional arrangements are "inefficient," though they certainly are that as well. To be sure, the rules by which member countries vote on new initiatives are muddled and unwieldy: The constitutional designers were right to say that in the interests of good government, these needed reforming. But in concerning themselves almost exclusively with this notion of constitutional efficiency—that is, with making the Union easier for its political masters and their bureaucrats to run—the designers of the new constitution almost entirely neglected the far more important question of constitutional legitimacy—that is, the holding of political power to account.

Over the past 20 years, a great deal of political power has moved, by accident as well as by design, from Europe's national capitals to Brussels and the European Commission, the E.U.'s mongrel executive-cum-legislative branch. People feel that political decision-making has been moved by stealth away from national legislatures to a distant realm of unaccountable executive action, where the ordinary rules of democratic politics do not apply. And the fact is, they are right to think that. This is exactly what has happened.

The most important task for the new constitution was to repair those broken links of popular sovereignty. Hard though it may now be to believe, this task was understood when the effort to draw up a new constitution began. As the drafting got under way, it seemed pretty clear what was needed: first and foremost, a settled division of duties and powers between national governments and Europe's center—one that restored genuine democratic control over European politics.

In this, the E.U. had two broad ways to go. One was to acknowledge and accept the extent of the shift of power to the center, to let that stand, and to restore democracy by greatly increasing the powers of the elected European Parliament to hold the Commission in check. The other was to put new, binding, and intelligible limits on the powers and duties of the center so that the principal locus of accountability in European politics could safely remain, as now, national governments, which are already (for the most part) soundly democratic.

The first course would have been brave, not to say crazy, given the fact that political debate across the Union is wholly national in character, and that you cannot create a new political identity for Europeans by a mere expression of constitutional ambition—least of all if Europeans show little sign of wanting such a thing, which is the case. Still, that first course would at least have been intellectually coherent. And so would the second, much better, approach: that of curbing the powers of the center and giving national parliaments more sway. But the draft constitution, despite its remarkable length and complexity, did neither of these things. It did not even try, in fact, to do one or the other. Incredibly, it actually made matters worse.

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