Monday, May 30, 2005
The French have voted against ratification of the European Constitution, by a margin in line with the final opinion poll predictions ("non" 55%, "oui" 45%, turnout 70%). This vote is evidence of a fundamental problem, not so much with the EU but more with politics in general.
The consequences of the French vote will be profound although the immediate effects will be less dramatic than many commentators are predicting. The day-to-day administration of the EU can continue indefinitely under the present rules. It is not yet clear whether the forthcoming EU summit on 16-17 June will decide formally to abandon the constitution, but such an outcome is likely sooner or later, since the French will not re-run their referendum, and the constitution must be ratified by all 25 EU member states before it can take effect.
The Dutch referendum on Wednesday is also likely to produce a "no" vote, so do not be surprised if the EU's leaders decide to cut their losses at the summit rather than plough on regardless. Instead of setting up another coconut shy in the form of a new draft constitution, it is more likely that the EU's leaders (following an ostentatious "period of reflection") will opt for some form of piecemeal reform with more limited ambitions, which focuses on streamlining the EU's decision-making procedures.
The one person who must be most pleased with this outcome is Tony Blair, who will almost certainly not now have to stage a referendum in the UK.
The reasons for the French revolt are complex, varied and numerous (see the list in an article in Saturday's Guardian). Unlike in the UK, however, support for the "non" option was not a proxy for opposition to EU membership.
This vote was not really about the constitution at all. One suspects the referendum vote would have been lost no matter what the constitution actually said. The fact that French opponents of the constitution see it as "Anglo Saxon" and "neo-liberal" while British opponents see it as "continental" and "socialist" shows that the constitution became a symbol for something else entirely. Indeed, within France itself, the "non" campaign attracted the support of both a "social" left and a nationalist right, two groups with opposing motives.
Assuming one broadly accepts the EU, the actual content of the constitution is mostly uncontroversial, though long-winded. It does not propose as drastic a change to the EU as the Single European Act of 1987 (supported, incidentally, by Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher) or the Maastricht Treaty of 1994 (supported, incidentally, by Conservative prime minister John Major).
The best analysis written so far comes from historian Theodore Zeldin in Sunday's Observer. It boils down to the fact that people feel insecure. Despite achieving unprecedented material well-being, we live in a more impersonal world with an uncertain future. Politicians and political institutions are losing popular respect. Given an opportunity to punish the political elites, people will seize it.
The biggest mistake we could make now is to assume that the popular backlash against the European Constitution is purely to do with the EU. It is instead symptomatic of a deeper and wider popular alienation from politics, which can be seen throughout Europe at all levels of government.
Monday's right-wing press will present a smug face. But the problems of popular insecurity and alienation are just as great with Britain's system of government as they are with the EU's.