The French "No" vote: Part Two - Where does the EU go from here?
Kevin Cooney (Associate Professor of Political Science, Union University) and J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)
This is the second installment of a three-part analysis of the French and now Dutch rejections of the EU Constitution and the consequences for Europe. This part was written immediately after the Dutch also voted against the Constitution by a preliminary margin of 61.6% to 38.4%, a far greater degree of rejection than in France on May 29th.
(The first article can be found here.)
Sean Curtin: Post-referendum opinion surveys indicate that the French voted "non" for a variety of reasons. Some of the main ones were French enthusiasm for the grand European project is not as strong as it once was, the ruling French political elite is out of favour, the Constitution itself was over ambitious and too complex, and the French feel disenchanted with the new 25-member EU, which many now view as remoter than before enlargement. Some of the reasons for rejecting the document had little to do with the Constitution itself which illustrates the old adage that if you ask people one question, they will answer another one. In the Netherlands similar reasons also appear to be behind the resounding no vote.
Kevin Cooney: On the bright side, we are seeing democracy in action. It is interesting that the EU constitution is 8-0 in national legislatures, but only 1-2 in referendums. Decisions of this magnitude should not, in my opinion, be left to national legislatures as the people have to live with the results. Constitutions should be put to the people for an up or down vote.
Sean Curtin: I agree. It is simple not possible to have a successful EU unless the public feels that it is a democratic and responsive institution.
Kevin Cooney: Nine members have passed the EU constitution, but only one of these nine did it by referendum, Spain back on February 20th. It has long been said that southern Europe gets more from the EU than it gives so it was in the Spanish voter's interest overall to support the EU constitution. The French and Dutch voters on the other hand saw things differently.
I believe the pre-referendum polls had a decisive effect on the outcome of the French vote. As French voters began to see that many of their fellow citizens also had questions about the EU constitution they began to question and examine the constitution for themselves. In the past month I have read countless news account of undecided voters sitting down and attempting to read the constitution or a summary of it and talking about it with their family and friends. This is a healthy democracy in action, informed voters making informed choices. The courage of the French and Dutch voters to go against the tide of legislatures will give voters in the seven remaining nations using the referendum option pause to consider carefully this momentous choice that they are being asked to make.
Three very important EU states, France and the Netherlands who have said "no" and the United Kingdom which is very likely to say "no" represent very significant, but diverse interests within the EU. Their opinions should not be taken lightly. It is significant that the peoples of traditional rivals, England and France, can agree on something this important. It is a strong indication that there are problems with the EU constitution in its current form. If the French and Dutch votes do not scuttle the whole EU constitution immediately, I would look for more "no" votes in upcoming referendums and possibly even national legislatures considering the document more carefully.
Sean Curtin: While am sure a few voters in France and the Netherlands did sit down and read the 300-page constitution, I don't really think that many did. The fact that it was so long and complex was seen as one of the major problems in ratifying it. There was a very lively public debate in France and the Netherlands about the issue and that probably influenced voters the most.
I think it is unlikely that the UK will hold a referendum; the French and Dutch votes will probably sink the whole project for the time being.
Kevin Cooney: The "no" votes do not mean that Europe can not move forward but rather it must study what has happened and learn from this experience so that the EU can move forward as an entity. The greatest mistake that the EU could make would be to keep pushing this constitution at the peoples of Europe until it passes. It is important to remember that America's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was a failure. America's founders learned from their initial mistake and wrote a better constitution the second time around. Europe may look back on this day in the future and say "merci" to the French and Dutch for making them realize they could do better.
Sean Curtin: Some think that eventually a constitution will be passed, perhaps even this one in another form, or more likely a different one. What is evident is that the public does not think the time is right for an EU constitution. The conclusion to be drawn from this democratic exercise is that "Brand EU" is not that popular just now and until that changes, a new constitution is unlikely to be ratified.
Kevin Cooney: I agree. In the first article I laid out three reasons for the French "no" vote, a fourth reason could well be summed up as a rejection of European unity at this time. Change is never easy and change within Europe maybe is happening too fast for the public. Back in the late 1980s, I spoke with an EU official who saw European unity as a 300-year process. He told me to remember that Europe, unlike the US, has no common language or culture and the internal rivalries within Europe will take longer to overcome. This constitution was called and designed to be a halfway measure for Europe on the road to unity. It provided some unity but it also protected sovereignty; making the EU more than an economic union but less than a superstate. However, the public probably saw halfway as still going too far at this time.