The following are
two pieces by the chairman and the executive director of the Project on
the implications of a French "no" vote on the EU constitution.
In the face of an arrogant, out-of-touch, debate-stifling old regime, a whiff of democracy can be liberating. And not just in the Middle East.
Whatever the outcome of the French referendum on the European Union's constitution on Sunday, May 29, and the Dutch vote on Wednesday, June 1, it is already clear (as we go to press Friday, before the votes) that the public debate over the referenda, and the real possibility of a "No" vote, could prove to have been a liberating experience for Europeans.
Leave aside the dubious merits of the constitution itself. The Economist, normally pro-European and somewhat pro-establishment, has called for rejection of the constitution because "the central thrust of the document is towards more centralization," which it correctly thinks a bad idea. But the debate hasn't hinged on questions of E.U. governance. It has turned on something more fundamental--a collapse of confidence in the political and media establishment in France and the Netherlands, and in Western Europe altogether.
It's hard for Americans to appreciate just how out-of-touch the establishment (and it really is a single establishment) of Paris, Berlin, the Hague, and Brussels is. Its arrogance almost beyond belief. Former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the father of the 448-article constitution, early on in the campaign dismissed complaints about the document's opacity by assuring his countrymen, "The text is easily read and quite well phrased, which I can say all the more easily since I wrote it myself." As Ivan Rioufol of Le Figaro, writing in the Wall Street
Journal, commented, "The French didn't know whether he was simply cynical or unaware of the absurdity of his statement. And so he became a caricature of the self-obsessed, aloof politician."
On the other hand, Holland's Europe minister, Atzo Nicolai, a supporter of the constitution, acknowledges that "people say that too many important changes have been made without real debate--and they are right about that." So the debate over the constitution opens up the prospect for a broader debate, and a chance for wider rethinking--of Europe's failing welfare states and growth-stultifying, upward-mobility-denying economies; of its failing immigration and multiculturalism policies; of its anti-Americanism and coolness to the cause of freedom and democracy around the world; of its failure to be serious about the threats confronting it and us. All of these are now legitimate subjects of public discussion.
For Americans to grasp the character of the moment, it helps to think back to the early 1990s. Think of the collapse of New York city under David Dinkins and of liberal urban policies generally. Think of the House banking scandal, and the out-of-touch first Bush administration, and the Democratic party's ritualistic liberalism. Then think of 1992: The Perot phenomenon was akin to the revolt against the E.U. constitution--noisy, confused, but not meaningless.
The good news for America is that the discontent of the early 1990s produced a Rudy Giuliani to govern New York, a Bill Clinton to (temporarily) redefine the Democratic party, and a Newt Gingrich to revitalize the Republicans. In Europe today, there are signs of Clinton-Giuliani-Gingrich-ism in the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy in France, and of some fresh-thinking young (dare I call them) neoconservatives and neoliberals throughout Europe.
But so far the fresh thinkers haven't been able to break through. It is as if it were in 1996, and there had been no Clintonian redefinition of the Democrats, and Bob Michel were still leading the House Republicans, and there had been no Giuliani mayoralty in New York, and no welfare reform from Congress, and no American intervention in Bosnia--and the alternative news media were still in their infancy, and no academic counterculture had emerged. That's Europe today.
Europe deserves better than the political class and the political discourse (to use a European formulation) that it has been stuck with. In this respect, the leftists rallying in Paris against the constitution last Wednesday were right to insist that their "No" was "A hopeful No." This is a moment of hope--for the prospects for a strong, pro-American, pro-liberty, more or less free-market and free-trade, socially and morally reinvigorated Europe. In any case, as Le Figaro's Ivan Rioufol suggests, the referendum, whatever its outcome, has already had a "liberating effect." Rioufol explains, "It introduced freedom of speech into the French political debate. Until now, the political oligarchy and the media's politically correct group-think had silenced any critical mind. . . . The people's revolt and their demand for 'true talk' are sweeping away the old political scene and its political correctness."
What is true of France is true of Europe as a whole. What will follow this week's votes is unclear. But the French people may be securing for themselves, and others in Europe, an opportunity for fresh thought and action. Vive la France!
is editor of the Weekly Standard and chairman of the Project for the New
It Dies, C'est La Vie
The French vote today on whether to OK the European Union's draft constitution, and if they say no, as most opinion polls indicate, the document will be effectively killed. Big deal?
That one can even
ask such a question when constitutional matters are on the table is remarkable.
It also touches on the core problem with the proposed constitution: Both
supporters and critics are all over the map as to why or even if
it is important. With good reason. The new constitution will never
be great literature. It has 448 articles, in contrast with the U.S. Constitution's
seven. It drones on for hundreds of pages and is 4 inches thick in standard
type. Substantively, it is full of potential contradictions, the result
of everyone on Europe's political spectrum having had a say in its drafting.
a mere codification and streamlining of the existing EU order;
the foundation for a stronger, more cohesive union;
the death knell of nation-state sovereignty;
the imposition of a Franco-German social welfare system;
the establishment of an Anglo-American regime of hyper-capitalism.
The result is a draft constitution that few love, many fault and even fewer understand.
The foreign policy implications of a "no" vote in France are just as unclear. One account holds that if the French reject the constitution and thus block its adoption, a crisis of faith will spread throughout Europe as the great experiment in European integration comes to a halt. The most extreme analysis says that failure to move forward on the constitutional front will revive the dangerous nationalism of Europe's bloody past. This anxiety is way overblown. Europe is no longer a collection of nation-states but rather of liberal democracies, most of which are allied with each other and the United States.
The more sensible worry is that a French "no" will usher in a period of European introversion and declining interest in working with the U.S. on such matters as integrating Turkey or Ukraine into Europe. One of the constitution's features is a nonrotating EU president and foreign minister that, the pro-constitution argument goes, would provide the U.S. with a more effective partner on the world stage.
It is unlikely, however, that the EU, even if the constitution goes down, would or could ignore Ukraine or Turkey for long. Turkey's prospects for EU membership would decline considerably if the French vote no, but that would require Brussels to redouble its outreach to Ankara to prevent an even greater crisis on Europe's rim. And although a new, streamlined foreign policy bureaucracy, a possibility under the proposed document, might make the EU a more coherent global actor, the new constitution would do little to change the underlying, consensus-driven process that marks key EU foreign policy decisions. The EU's might be the louder voice, but its words would be no different.
The Netherlands will vote on the constitution Wednesday, and polls show even less support for it there than in France. Meanwhile, upcoming votes in the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark and, most important, Britain could result in additional nos.
But as longtime observers of Europe are fond of pointing out, European political elites have always found ways to keep their integration dreams moving along. They have done so by keeping their ultimate goal fuzzy while contending that any new arrangements would not fundamentally change the EU's character. There's a limit to that strategy. As German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in a May 2000 speech, the contradiction between what the European Union had become (and would probably become) and the political arrangements that could give it democratic legitimacy was increasingly unsustainable. But the European elites that created the problem and that recently expanded the EU from 15 to 25 members without consulting the public have not found a way to write a constitution to solve it.
Commentators here and in France have belittled French opponents of the constitution as "know-nothings" partisans with exaggerated fears of immigration, globalization and Gaullist decline. There is some truth to that characterization. But these French "know-nothings" know something important: It matters whether citizens can control the government that controls them.
If the EU constitution goes down in flames, Europe's political elites would do well to remind themselves of that simple but profound point as they decide their next course.
Gary Schmitt is the executive director of the Project for the New American Century.