The French Rejection

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

IN CONSIDERING the draft European constitution, the French took their responsibility seriously. Leading up to Sunday's referendum, a poll found that 83 percent had discussed the constitution in the previous week, and five of the top 10 sellers on the French nonfiction list were about the treaty. When voting day came, almost 70 percent voted. The convincing victory for the No camp -- 55 percent voted to reject the constitution and only 45 percent voted in support -- demonstrates profound misgivings about the European project in the country most responsible for launching it.

The rejection is not a disaster. Europe will carry on functioning under existing rules, although at some point it will need to fix the core problem that prompted the constitution's drafting: An enlarged European Union, comprising 25 countries today and probably more in the future, cannot function well when every member government enjoys a veto. Majoritarian decisions will have to become the norm in at least some areas, although the constitution -- an annex-laden, 191-page tome -- errs in centralizing too many policies in Brussels. If the Dutch also reject the draft in their referendum tomorrow, European leaders may find a way to adopt the best parts of the document while jettisoning the centralizing overreach. If so, a bit of democratic rejection will have proved healthy for Europe.

But if the continent is to move ahead, it will have to resolve two anxieties exposed by the French referendum. The first concerns the geopolitical purpose of Europe. For much of the past half-century, France has been the motor of European integration because it saw big foreign policy rewards in the project: From the 1950s to perhaps the 1970s, integration was intended to bind Germany to its western neighbors and to forestall another war. More recently, it has been intended to create a European entity powerful enough to serve as a counterweight to the United States. But the recent accession of Eastern European members with pro-American instincts has undermined the counterweight idea. If anything, the growing size and integration of the European Union may be a counterweight to Gallic anti-Americanism. As a result, Europe needs to find a motor for integration that can replace French nationalism.

The second anxiety is economic. The constitution is portrayed in pro-market Britain as threatening Euro-socialism, while in France it's widely believed to threaten Anglo-American "ultraliberalism." The truth is that the constitution's economic implications aren't clear from its contorted text, but also that European publics aren't likely to embrace major constitutional change while they feel insecure economically. French unemployment stands at just over 10 percent, while Germany's is at 12 percent. Both countries need to endure painful economic restructuring of the sort that Margaret Thatcher forced on Britain in the 1980s. Their leaders have yet to find a persuasive way to talk about domestic reform or European state-building.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company