Europe At the Precipice

By George F. Will
Sunday, May 29, 2005

The European Union, which has a flag no one salutes and an anthem no one knows, now seeks ratification of a constitution few have read. Surely only its authors have read its turgid earnestness without laughing, which is one reason why the European project is foundering. Today in France, and Wednesday in the Netherlands, Europe's elites -- political, commercial and media -- may learn the limits of their ability to impose their political fetishes on restive and rarely consulted publics.

The European project is the transformation of "Europe" from a geographic into a political denotation. This requires the steady drainage of sovereignty from national parliaments and the "harmonization" of most economic and social policies. But if any of the 25 E.U. member nations reject the proposed constitution -- 11 have ratified it or are in the process of doing so -- it shall not come into effect. And if French voters in today's referendum reject it, Dutch voters will be even more likely to do so in their nation's first referendum in 200 years.

France and the Netherlands are a third of the original six members of the European Union's precursor, the European Economic Community. The most important treaty in the transformation of a Europe of states into a state of Europe was signed in 1992 in the Dutch city after which it is named -- Maastricht. The proposed constitution, which is 10 times longer than the U.S. Constitution, was written by a convention led by a former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

So why are these two nations being balky? Partly because, unusually, they are allowed to be. The European project has come this far largely by bypassing democracy.

Many French voters will use today's referendum to vent grievances against Jacques Chirac, who has been in power for 10 years, which would be excessive even if he were not overbearing. Some French factions, their normal obstreperousness leavened by paranoia, think the constitution is a conspiracy to use "ultraliberalism" -- free markets -- to destroy their "social model." That is the suffocating web of labor laws and other statism that gives France double-digit unemployment -- a staggering 22 percent of those under age 25.

Furthermore, with a Muslim presence in France of 8 percent and rising, there is a backlash against Chirac's championing of E.U. membership for Turkey, which would be, by the time it joined, by far the most populous E.U. country. Admission of Turkey would further reduce -- more than did last year's admission of 10 nations, eight in Eastern Europe -- the European Union's output per person, which according to one study already ranks below that of 46 American states.

The 16 million Dutch, the largest per-capita net contributors to the European Union, live uneasily with a growing population of Muslim immigrants. The Dutch immigration minister says that "we have about 700,000 people who have been here for years but who don't speak the language or have a clue about our most basic rules and values." Many Dutch regard the proposed constitution as a device for sweeping their little nation into a large, meddlesome entity of 450 million people, with consequent dilution of self-determination.

The proposed constitution has 448 articles -- 441 more than the U.S. Constitution. It is a jumble of pieties, giving canonical status to sentiments such as "the physical and moral integrity of sportsmen and sportswomen" should be protected. It establishes, among many other rights, a right to "social and housing assistance" sufficient for a "decent existence." Presumably, supranational courts and bureaucracies will define and enforce those rights, as well as the right of children to "express their views fully." And it stipulates that "preventive action should be taken" to protect the e nvironment.

The constitution says member states can "exercise their competence" only where the European Union does not exercise its. But the constitution gives E.U. institutions jurisdiction over foreign affairs, defense, immigration, trade, energy, agriculture, fishing and much more. Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, is scurrying crabwise away from his vow to hold a referendum on the constitution even if France rejects it. But, then, how could any serious prime minister countenance a constitution that renders his office a nullity?

T.S. Eliot, a better poet than philosopher, wrote: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

Nonsense. If the French and Dutch reject the constitution, they will do so for myriad reasons, some of them foolish. But whatever the reasons, the result will be salutary because the constitution would accelerate the leeching away of each nation's sovereignty.

Sovereignty is a predicate of self-government. The deeply retrograde constitution would reverse five centuries of struggle to give representative national parliaments control over public finance and governance generally.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company