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What’s Left of the Union?


The French and Dutch referendum votes against the European constitutional treaty caused many Europeans to be alarmed for European unity itself. This was called the biggest reversal for Europe in fifty years, a revolt against economic reform putting the euro in jeopardy, a “lurch to the left,” a repudiation of Europe’s modernizing elites, the beginning of the end for the European Union. “We who lead Europe have lost the power to make Europeans proud of themselves,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister and current holder of the European presidency.

The rejection is something much simpler. It is a crisis provoked by the expansion of the European Union. It was foreseeable, and was sooner or later inevitable. The French and the Dutch have done the European Union a service by bringing it on now. A Europe of twenty-five members (not to speak of a potential thirty-five, or more) is too big to function as the Europe of Six, Twelve, and even Fifteen has been able to function. It represents a radical break from the EU as it has existed.

The constitutional treaty was the product of months of conscientious reconciliation of the views of the individual national members, under the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who wrote the final version with the synthesizing panache taught only at the École Nationale d’Administration. (The Constitution “is easy to read,” he told the French; a “très joli” text.1 ) In addition to combining all the previous EU treaties into a single three-hundred-page document, the constitution confers a number of additional powers on the union. It establishes a single EU foreign minister and a full-time president of the European Council, which consists of heads of state and government. It eliminates single-country vetoes on basic legislation (though not on big foreign policy decisions); and it increases the powers of the European Parliament. Although Spain approved it in a referendum earlier this year, France and the Netherlands rejected it with passion as soon as the public could have a go at it in their own referendums.2

The rejection surely demonstrated the current gap of comprehension between European political elites and the European public, but was mainly evidence of the consistently underestimated forces of national identity and ambition in each of the twenty-five nations. The French were enthusiastically seconded by another highly nationalistic and individualistic Euro-pean society, the Netherlands—also one of the founding states of the European Union.

Not only the French and the Dutch (and obviously the British, who have now postponed a referendum that almost certainly would have rejected the constitutional treaty) are opposed to the constitution—or to be more exact, to the form of European integration, and the intention of further EU expansion, that the constitution embodied.

Sixty-five percent of the public in Sweden has demanded a referendum (instead of ratification by parliament)—a percentage that doubtless forecasts how the vote would go. The outcome of the Luxembourg referendum set for July 10 is expected to be no. Before the French and Dutch voted, polls in Denmark suggested a “yes” majority in the referendum called for September; but the prime minister, the Liberal Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has already said that unless Denmark has a guarantee that the document to be voted on will not later be renegotiated, a referendum is pointless.

The German Bundestag has also already ratified the constitution by a very large majority, but there is much reticence in Germany about where Europe seems headed. A writer in Die Zeit said recently that “the deep source of the malaise is not the constitution but Europe; one has the impression of having lost control over it.”

A German Christian Democrat deputy who was a member of the convention that wrote the constitution said recently:

Until the start of the 1990s, we believed German and European interests were synonymous, identical. Today, opposition to that idea is visible, slowly developing over more then ten years. It began with hostility to the euro, which still exists….

As this is written, the European Council meeting of presidents and prime ministers on June 16 is considering the next step, but while some governments cling to the idea of renegotiating the constitution, or think everyone should still have a chance to vote, it seems obvious that the constitutional project is dead, and so is Europe’s expansion beyond the current twenty-five members—plus the two who have been promised membership, Bulgaria and Romania. Turkey now appears to be out.

According to the EU agreement the ratification process can’t go on indefinitely. If, after two years, four fifths of the EU states have ratified the constitution but the rest have experienced “difficulties,” the European Council “will be seized” of the matter. With two important referendum defeats already, preparations for a British referendum suspended, and the prospect of referendum defeats in Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, and even Poland, the European Council seems unlikely to be troubled by the ratification issue two years hence. The European Union in that case will go on being governed by the ill-considered Nice Treaty of 2003, undoubtedly amended to remove some of its more unsatisfactory provisions, including its allocation of votes in the European Council, which was unfavorable to Germany and notably favorable to Spain and Poland. It will then be necessary for the EU governments to reconsider the future of Europe.

The referendum defeats and their implications have demonstrated a reality that the European political leadership has failed to acknowledge or has not wished to recognize. Expansion of the EU to the former Warsaw Pact nations was undertaken for moral as well as political reasons that, once the cold war ended, were all but impossible to ignore. But quantitative change can become qualitative change. The EU was being changed by expansion in ways that obstructed the integration and common action that were part of the EU’s original intention and previous development.

Large parts of the EU populations in the “old” countries of the union—France, Germany, and the Netherlands among them—are uncomfortable with expansion to twenty-five countries. They are apprehensive about bringing into the EU Romania and Bulgaria, not to speak of the remaining and still unreconciled former Yugoslav states of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and (whatever its eventual form) Kosovo, and very doubtful indeed about Ukraine and Georgia.

All these countries have traditions, cultures, and histories more or less distant from those at the core of Western Europe, where the EU started. There is even greater reluctance to extend the EU to non-European Muslim countries in Asia Minor and the southern Mediterranean. Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, a new Iraq, and eventually Israel had all been thought by some to be logical future members. Including them would, it was hoped, soften the “clash” of Islamic and Western civilizations.

Forceful arguments were made for admitting all these countries. A “new Yalta” agreement that would cut Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Georgia out of “Europe” seems scarcely thinkable. The exclusion of these countries—their abandonment and consequent isolation from the European mainstream—could have desperate, even disastrous, consequences for them. The elaborate, sophisticated, and well-financed mechanism by which EU candidate members have until now been impelled to reform their political institutions, standards of justice, and protection of human rights, and develop their economies, has proven a marvelous force for stabilizing and modernizing societies with turbulent histories such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Greece.

Over the last decade the EU has had immense influence on Turkey as Turkish leaders worked toward membership. There is obviously a great need to support political and social reform elsewhere in the Muslim world in order to develop constructive relationships between Islamic society and Europe and the larger West.

But to attempt all this by holding out the promise of EU membership threatens the integrity and survival of the European Union itself. Such is the judgment of the French and Dutch electorates. The EU is not an international aid or development agency; it is not aimed at reforming humanity or reconciling civilizations (or for supporting American foreign policy and global aims, as some Americans would like it to become).

The Dutch and French votes reflect the intuition that the first obligation of any political society, whether national or multinational, is to itself, its own security, integrity, and successful functioning. The European Union has to be a success in order to have a constructive influence on others, and this is what has seemed in jeopardy. As a success it may radiate its influence to neighboring societies through many forms of more or less intimate association, but not through membership, which would compromise its own integrity and capacity for action.

Some see cultural or religious discrimination in such a view. Some certainly see in it the comeback of nationalism, and the conventional political wisdom since World War II has identified nationalism with fascism. Fascism and Nazism both were nationalist historical moments, but nationalism is not fascism or Nazism. The US at this moment is arguably the most nationalistic country on earth.

Nationalism is an expression of the intense need for affirmation of national or communal identity as the anchor of individual identity. It is one of the fundamental forces at work in political societies, giving them meaning. It is also one of the “strong” forces in the physics of international relations, if not the strongest. It overrides short-term deviation or distraction. Although it may accompany high-minded internationalism, it does not readily yield to it; the repressed returns. For this reason nationalism has to be accommodated, not stubbornly resisted.

This is the force that has upset the European project and that resists further EU expansion as well as further concentration of executive power. The constitution asks a larger sacrifice of national sovereignty than the French, Dutch, and others are willing to accept. The Dutch plebiscite was all about identity. “We want to stay Dutch” was one of the slogans used to mobilize votes against the Constitution. The existence of a large and unassimilated immigrant population was a particular factor in the no vote in the Netherlands.


Considerable confusion has been caused by comment in Europe as well as the United States and Britain that conflates the domestic problems and political conflicts of France and the Netherlands with the issues of European expansion and the constitutional treaty. France suffers a “crisis of regime” that results from unemployment of about 10 percent, failures by the existing and previous governments to bring about economic and social reform, and personal rivalries over who will be the next president. This is all very interesting to the French political class and public, and to outsiders interested in France, but it is of strictly French concern.

The same is true in the Netherlands, where a weak coalition government deals with the consequences of the breakdown in recent years—for reasons having little or nothing to do with the EU—of the old political structure of Dutch society. Since the beginning of the last century political stability in Holland has rested on a more or less formal division of power and institutional influence among the Protestant and Catholic churches and other major social institutions in the Netherlands.

  1. 1

    The French listened to him; they knew what they were voting on. In the final weeks before the referendum, books about the constitution were the three top French best sellers. The text was distributed by the government to everyone on the voting lists. An impassioned debate that split families and ended friendships had an intensity not experienced since a Socialist-Communist coalition successfully bid for power in France in 1981.

  2. 2

    Nine countries chose to ratify the treaty by parliamentary action: Austria, Germany, Italy, Greece, Hun-gary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

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