The French "No" vote: Part One - Why did France reject the EU Constitution?
Kevin Cooney (Associate Professor of Political Science, Union University)
This analysis was written immediately after the French referendum result was known and forms the basis for a three part discussion about its implications.
The French have just resoundingly voted down the EU constitution (about 55-45%). The Dutch are scheduled to vote on the constitution on June 1st and public opinion polls show it being defeated by an even wider margin than in France. This leads to the question of "Why?"
How could the constitutional commission make such a grave error by presenting a document that would not be acceptable to the French or Dutch peoples who are seen as some of the founding fathers and strongest supporters of the EU? In answering these questions first it is important to remember that with any change as major as a new constitution there will be strong opposition just to the idea of change. However this being said there are, in my opinion, three major causes to the downfall of the EU constitution with the first two being surmountable, but the third may require a major rewrite or rethinking of the EU constitution.
The first and simplest reason for the French rejection of Europe is French President Jacques Chirac himself and the French rejection of his economic leadership. This reason is too simple and too easily solved to be the primary reason for the rejection. Studies of voting behavior have consistently shown that voters will vote in their own best interest whether they like their choices or not. This means voters will vote for the lesser of two "evils." If the French voters had seen the EU constitution in their best interest it would have passed in spite of Chirac.
The second reason is economic. Former American President Bill Clinton famously said in 1992, "It is the economy stupid!" Voters will consistently vote in their perceived economic best interest. In the case of the EU constitution, the voters of both France and (likely) the Netherlands on one side are saying we want a document that provides for our economic security and this document does not. Voters on the other side of the political spectrum within these nations are saying that Europe needs to bring an end to double digit unemployment and restore economic vitality and prosperity to Europe and that the EU constitution does not deal with this fundamental economic issue for the future of Europe. This is one of the most complex issues that faced the writers of the constitution, writing a document that provides and creates the mechanism for both economic security and economic vitality. It is clear that in the area of framing the economic future of Europe the writers failed in the eyes of voters on all sides of the issue.
The third reason is really the most important in that it deals with the previously mentioned fear of change on the part of people and in this case European voters. The constitution tried to do too much. In other words it fails the simplicity test. The sheer size and detail of the EU constitution is scary to many, if not most, European voters. The English version is nearly a 300 page document. Compare this with the simplicity of the US constitution which only a tenth of the size of the European one. Constitutions need to be practical documents which lay out the basic rules for governance and the BASIC rights of a people from which law can develop.
The European constitution should have simply laid out the rules for future government in Europe, separation of powers both between the European Union institutions and the European states themselves, and basic rights such as freedom of speech, religion, press, and due process that are fundamental to foment a healthy democracy. It needed to be a framework for the evolution of European law not the final say on European law and rights. A great deal would still have been left up to the courts to interpret but too much is codified in the constitution thus restricting the power of the courts and European legislatures to work with the document.
It should have been the mechanism for future amendments, through referendum if needed, to establish more detailed rights rather than to codify everything at once and for all in the beginning. The detailed declaration of rights while admirable locks the constitution into the politics of the moment and thus keeps the constitution from being a future focused document. One must remember that it is very hard to change or remove things, particularly rights, from a constitution. It is always better to add things as society sees the need than to take them away.
The EU constitution presented had already decided so many issues without giving the people of Europe the chance to make choices for themselves at the ballot box. The document in sum is too utopian and detailed in that it tries to do everything in one fell swoop. In the end this document means nothing to the here and now of the average European. The European Constitutional Convention should revisit their basic philosophy of what they expect this document to do and revise it accordingly. They should also spend a great deal of time listening to what the peoples of Europe are saying to them and not to the special interest groups within Europe.