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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.