TCS Daily


Does "Non" Mean No?

By Johnny Munkhammar - May 5, 2005 12:00 AM

On May 29, France will have all the power its leaders ever wished it to have. Some 40 million French voters have the opportunity to decide the future for 450 million Europeans. Of course the formal policy from other EU leaders is that even if the French say "non" to the proposed Constitutional Treaty in their referendum, the other countries in the Union will continue their ratification processes. But in reality, if the French say no, the proposal is finished.

The new Treaty has been ratified in six EU countries, but in the only the second one with a referendum it looks as if the no side will win. And it would be different with a French no than with a Greek no; France is a large country, a founding member of the European Union. Even a British no -- which also looks likely -- could be handled in another way, with some kind of looser accession membership.

With a no in France, the proposal is gone. So what are the French actually voting on, what are they discussing? If they turn it down, what is it they have said no to?

The French yes-side describes the Constitutional Treaty as highly influenced by France, a step towards a more "social" Europe and something that will increase French power and "gloire" in Europe. The no-side does the opposite; they say the Treaty would be the final victory for a neo-liberal Europe with a free market -- a more British Europe.

Of course both are wrong. But they have made exactly the same analysis: a majority of French voters like France and social Europe and dislike free markets and Britain. Thus, they portray the proposal in totally opposite ways to satisfy their voters. But they are not totally wrong. Of course both sides can highlight parts of the constitution to make their case. Some provisions support the principles of the free market and others could be seen as steps towards a more "social" EU. The document is a big compromise, and contains all such elements.

From a free-market perspective, it contains obvious flaws, notably in that it does not set clear limits to EU power. But that is not what is discussed in France. And when you get such totally contradictory descriptions of the proposal -- with the typical over-simplifications of a referendum -- voters get understandably confused. Hardly anybody will read the entire proposal. People have to listen to the two sides in the public debate. And when the content gets totally confusing, it turns out to be a matter of whom you trust. In French politics today, few are very trusted. And the least trusted of all, it seems, is Jacques Chirac.

So we have a referendum on Jacques Chirac. I would vote no to him any time. But the problem is that a no-vote in this particular referendum will not get rid of him. He will remain but there will be no Constitutional Treaty for the EU.

Another part of the message from the no-campaign -- one that at least has some connections with the issue at stake -- is that a yes on the 29th is a yes to Turkey in the EU. It is true that the Treaty makes such a large enlargement possible. This is a big argument for the French.

If the French say no, they do it for all of us. And they do it mainly because they say no to the free market, no to Turkey and no to Chirac. EU leaders say that there is no plan B, but of course there is. If the proposal falls, and if the EU needs a constitution, there will be a new proposal. From a free-market point of view, is that proposal likely to be better than the current one? Not very likely. If this one was turned down because it contained too little in the way of protecting European social programs, there will be more in the next proposal.

Then we will have the same situation again. In Britain, the Nordic countries and some countries in Eastern and Central Europe, the debate is the French one but reversed. A proposal with more big European government would definitely be rejected there.

Therefore, it seems more likely that the French voters -- if they say no -- will give us the two EUs that have been discussed for years. Some core countries, including France, that want a closer integration on social matters, will create such a union. But the basic foundation for the EU of 25, 27 and more countries will be a thinner document.

In a union with some 30 members, the least common denominator is small. The differences are large culturally, historically, politically and economically. Thus they will not agree on cooperating closely in so many fields. But there will be countries that wish to do so, like the French, and nobody could or should stop that.

Europe "à la carte". "Two-speed Europe". The phenomenon has many names. But in some form, it seems to be the most likely outcome in the longer run. What we get would then be a new proposed Constitution with fewer pages and less power to the EU as the foundation for the union -- to be ratified. And a group of countries that wish to have a deeper integration will discuss that.

Not a bad outcome. But not what the French believe would be the result of a no-vote.

The author is the director of Timbro, a Swedish free-market institute.

His website is www.munkhammar.org

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