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.

The Union's new Central European member states are industrially competitive, because wages there are low—and because their post-Communist governments are instinctively suspicious of state power, economic planning, and high taxes. That makes France nervous. And "new" Europe, for the same reason, is instinctively Atlanticist, whereas France is anti-American. A lot of French voters see the constitution as weakening their country's resistance to the depredations of the "Anglo-Saxon" model. They are mostly wrong to think that, but their reasons for rejecting the constitution are less important than the fact that they are preparing to do so.

The view that the European Union will come to a shuddering halt without the new constitution is nonsense, however much one might wish that were true. The existing system has coped surprisingly well with the new negotiating complexities of a 25-member Union. It needs improvements of the kind that the new constitution provides, but this is not a matter of life and death. The important thing is that Europe should start this whole process again, with a proper public debate at the beginning, and a simple accessible constitution at the end of it. If France makes that possible on May 29, it will deserve Europe's thanks, however flawed its reasons.

But here is a fair question: If Europe were to have this wide-ranging debate, how could it ever reach a consensus on which way the Union should be heading? Perhaps the only way to consolidate Europe's emerging political identity is to avoid any such wrenching debates.

I think not. It is bad in principle, and pragmatically wrong, to proceed as though these fundamental differences of worldview did not exist. Arguing them out might conceivably resolve them, but even if it did not, it would tell Europe something very important about the kind of structures it is creating. To the extent that deep-seated differences over foreign policy, or economic policy, or any kind of policy exist, the Union's constitution should be flexible enough to accommodate them. The centralizing urge of the Union's architects, very much to the fore until now, needs to be resisted.

A broad Union is fine, extending the benefits of better-entrenched democratic institutions and more-liberal trading arrangements to the former Soviet Empire and, in due course, to Turkey. But the broader the E.U.'s membership, culturally and geographically, the more likely it is that shallow, rather than deep, political integration will work best.

Something a new constitution could do, and should do, if France votes the right way next month, is to encode that principle in the Union's rules. Instead of the current presumption in favor of "ever-closer union," Europe's constitution needs to describe a stable settlement under which Europe's nation-states retain their primacy. Consensus on the idea that the E.U.'s constitutional innovation should not get too far in front of what the citizens of Europe want ought to be readily achievable. And the same goes for the so-called principle of "subsidiarity"—to which leaders have paid much lip service, but nothing more, up to now. This is simply the idea that government should operate at a level as close to the people as possible, so that local decisions are made locally, national decisions nationally, and regional decisions at the level of the region as a whole.

A simple constitution underpinning national sovereignty and the complementary principle of subsidiarity should have been Europe's goal all along. European leaders should welcome, not fear, this coming opportunity to get it right. And if France fails to provide it, other countries will get their chance. It may fall to Britain, much as this would embarrass its government, to send the draft constitution to the shredder. Tony Blair has promised a referendum—in this case, not because he is certain of winning it, but because he wanted to take the subject off the political agenda for the time being. To spare his embarrassment, Blair is hoping that some other government says no before he calls that vote. A no vote from France has the more important benefit of being impossible for Europe's elite to dismiss as a last exhalation of Little Englander chauvinism. Here's hoping.