TCS Daily

Towards a More Perfect Union?

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - June 1, 2005 12:00 AM

The struggle in France to ratify the EU constitution has ended disastrously for the government of President Jacques Chirac -- who staked his political capital on a "Oui" vote. But even before the votes were cast, the referendum fight put the spotlight on two unsavory elements in the European political system: the anti-democratic tendencies of the European Union itself and the abominably poor statecraft that has attended the attempt to bring about the ratification of the constitution and the realization of the Union.

Let us begin with the anti-democratic tendencies. Most of us would naturally assume that a rejection of the EU constitution by French voters would mean that the constitution itself should be renegotiated and that the holding of any future referendum would depend upon the submission of an entirely new constitutional document for consideration. But if that is what you assume, you are naïve. EU president Jean-Claude Juncker has helpfully informed the continent that only one answer will be considered acceptable in any referendum over the EU constitution:

        If the French and the Dutch reject the EU Constitution on Sunday and 
        Wednesday, they should re-run the referendums, the current president 
        of the EU, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said. 

        "If at the end of the ratification process, we do not manage to solve the 
        problems, the countries that would have said No, would have to ask 
        themselves the question again", Mr Juncker said in an interview with Belgian 
        daily Le Soir.

        His words come despite a statement by the French prime minister 
        Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Tuesday (24 May) saying that another referendum 
        is "not a perspective that France could accept".

The arrogance of the demand is breathtaking. Apparently it does not occur to Mr. Juncker that the constitution itself may be objectionable and unacceptable. Similarly, it does not occur to Mr. Juncker that even if he is right in thinking that the constitution should be accepted come Hell or high water, the EU must nevertheless respect the decision made by individual nation-states to reject the constitution. Democracy has its perils, after all. To be sure, the French decision to reject the constitution is a hammer blow to the hopes of pro-EU advocates. It will be very inconvenient and annoying to have to address. But it is fundamentally offensive to argue -- as advocates like Mr. Juncker does -- that the way to address such a rejection is to demand revote after revote until presumably, the voters "get it right," so to speak.

Of course, it would be easier to craft a new constitutional document and submit it for ratification by referendum if pro-EU advocates accepted their loss, moved on and tried to win back support amongst the populace. But apparently, even this may be too much to ask. If this report is to be believed, the government of Jacques Chirac will respond to the French rejection not with newfound humility and appeals for assistance in trying to regain political support, but with finger-pointing attacks against the government of Tony Blair in Britain. If Chirac wishes to disagree with Blair's desire to incorporate "flexible British and American-style economies rather than heavy regulation and tax harmonization," that is his right. But ultimately, the failure to sell French voters on the merits of the EU constitution must be laid at the doorstep of the French president himself. Blaming Blair for the failure will do nothing to change the minds of French voters and will only serve to create further divisions in Europe over the issue of continental integration. Additionally, there is the nagging question of why "flexible British and American-style economies" should necessarily be feared, especially given the anemic performance of the French economy in recent years. The Chirac government has no answer to this nagging question.

Beyond vague promises to renegotiate the treaty, Chirac seems to have few ideas on how best to bring about a change in the views of the electorate regarding the EU constitution. This is not only a failure of salesmanship on the domestic level, but a failure of statecraft as well. Despite the fact that a "non" vote was widely anticipated in France, Chirac appears to have no backup plan for how to get momentum flowing in favor of the European Union again. This prevents him from being able to negotiate with other European leaders from anything resembling a position of strength. It increases the chances that France will simply be pushed to the side as work on EU integration continues, and that neither Chirac nor his successor will be able -- at least in the near term -- to exercise much influence with the rest of the EU in any effort to rework the constitution.

The decision to reject the EU constitution resulted from a systemic failure in European politics. This failure will not be remedied by having EU politicians demand that voters see the error of their ways and ratify a constitution they have only recently rejected. Nor will it be remedied by a French government that looks increasingly lost and confused in dealing with the rejection of the constitution and in planning its next move. Jacques Chirac has precious little time in rallying his government to respond to what Le Figaro rightly calls "a thunderclap across the French political landscape." Instead of casting about for others to blame for his own political calamity, the French president would do well to look in the mirror for the chief political figure to blame for France's referendum decision. And if he cannot come up with a coherent response to that decision, perhaps he should clear his desk and the Elysee Palace for someone who can.


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