The French "No" vote: Part Three - Who is to blame and what will happen next?
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times) and Kevin Cooney (Associate Professor of Political Science, Union University)
This is the third and final part of an analysis of the French and Dutch rejections of the EU Constitution. (The first article can be found here and the second here.)
Kevin Cooney: The Dutch were long suspected as likely to narrowly reject the EU constitution. It was assumed that they would later fall into line when the rest of Europe went forward without them. However, the margin (63-37%) and turnout (62%) was much greater than anyone expected. This tells me that there were deep felt doubts about the constitution and thus a strong interest in voting it down on the part of the Dutch. Nonetheless, the British (in 2006) and Dutch voting to support the constitution were not seen as critical to the passage of the document, the French vote on the other hand was critical. France in many ways symbolizes the EU and has been its biggest cheerleader. How could French President Jacques Chirac make such a huge political blunder in asking the French people to pass a treaty without knowing for sure it would pass? He could have got it through the French Parliament easily.
Sean Curtin: At the moment, the EU is not particularly popular in France, so Chirac felt pressured into holding a referendum and calculated that by doing so he could split the opposition Socialists on the issue in the run-up to a general election. We can now see it was a catastrophic miscalculation. Chirac obviously felt he had a good chance of winning the vote and thereby weakening the Socialists in the process, a strategy that has dramatically backfired.
Kevin Cooney: Will Chirac send the constitution back to the French people soon for a revote like Ireland and Denmark did with Maastricht, will he try to ram it through the French Parliament over the public's objections, or will he respect the decision of the voters?
Sean Curtin: I think it is unlikely that Chirac would put it to the vote again or pass it in parliament, not unless he wants to commit political suicide. My own prediction is that it will be a few years before anything like this is put before the French people again. The Maastricht comparison is not relevant in this situation. Ireland and Denmark have rejected EU referenda in the past, but they are relatively small EU members, and the margin of rejection was small. This meant the particular points which led to rejection could be addressed in a revote. Those circumstances do not apply in the French case.
Kevin Cooney: Does this let Tony Blair and the British off the hook of being (likely) the only large nation that voted down and scuttled the EU constitution?
Sean Curtin: Yes, if you phrase the question like that. Because of the financial cost of holding a British referendum, and the fact that France and the Netherlands have already killed the project, it is now highly unlikely that the UK will actually hold a vote. The British public would say it was a waste of taxpayers' money since the French and Dutch no-votes mean that the Constitution cannot be ratified. Strangely, this fact seems to be something EU officials have not yet come to terms with. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has urged all EU countries to press ahead with ratification, even thought it now seems a pointless exercise. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has also said EU nations should continue ratifying the Constitution.
As the UK is due to take over the EU presidency in July, Blair, as long as he is still Prime Minister, will inherit all of the no-vote fallout, which may dominate the 6-month UK presidency. Incidentally, the double-rejection is likely to increase pressure on Blair to step down as Prime Minister as the UK referendum was seen as a political minefield by his potential challengers. With this problem seemingly gone, pretenders to the throne will feel emboldened.
Kevin Cooney: Are Commission President Barroso and Chancellor Schroeder being realistic? Could the EU go ahead without France, the UK, and the Netherlands assuming, and this is a big assumption, that no one else votes the constitution down? This to me sounds like desperation on the part of these two leaders. I personally could possibly see the EU going ahead without Britain and the Netherlands, but not France. France is such an integral part of everything the EU is and hopes to become that I see the French vote as literally killing the constitution for the time being.
Sean Curtin: I basically agree with your analysis, without France "Project Europe" cannot move forward. As for Barroso, Schroeder and several other EU leaders trying to pretend it is business as usual, it seems like they are just buying time while they decide what to do next. Some British commentators also say it is part of a blame-sharing exercise designed to make Britain look bad for canceling its referendum. However, saying ratification must continue is not a position that can be maintain for any length of time. In the end, Barroso, Schroeder and company will have to accept that for now the Constitution is dead.
Kevin Cooney: With the UK assuming the next six-month presidency of the EU, does Tony Blair have the vision and the political capital to work for European unity or will he just move the EU on for this round and let others deal with the future? It would seem to me that he has an opportunity here to make an impact and to create a legacy within Europe if he has a vision for the future of Europe.
Sean Curtin: I think Blair was hoping to use the EU Presidency which also coincides with the hosting of the G8 summit at Gleneagles in Scotland for more global-oriented projects like debt reduction for Africa, climate change and UN reform. I personally believe he wanted to move forward these issues rather than get bogged down in the EU quagmire of constitutional affairs. However, the fallout from the two no-votes is likely to influence his plans. Blair is a highly capable leader, so he will certainly be able to take on the new challenges.
Kevin Cooney: Where do you see Europe going from here and can the constitution's writers learn from this attempt? Could the EU go ahead without France, the UK, and the Netherlands assuming, and this is a big assumption, that no one else votes the constitution down?
Sean Curtin: The constitution is likely to be shelved for a few years. There are several elections in important EU members like Germany and Italy on the horizon and the EU will probably want to let the dust settle before initiating another grand project. Current arrangements and treaties will kept the EU going, and various arrangements will no doubt be found to make the new 25-member EU more workable. However, with 25 countries, the EU does need to find a new streamlined modus operandi that suits everyone and that will not be easy task. The future will certainly be challenging for the EU.