How to deliver Europe back to its citizens? This may be the crucial question to be answered after the double blow of founding fathers France and the Netherlands rejecting the European constitution.
Dutch voters said “nee” by 61.6% to 38.4%. Both the turnout and the margin of victory were much higher than opinion polls had predicted. As a Dutch diplomat put it, “We used to like Europe when we were only six – not 25.” France voted largely against the Anglo-Saxon model of unbridled neo-liberalism; but not the Dutch, who have greatly profited from globalization (exports account for 54% of gross national product).
However, much as in France, refusing the constitution accommodated a vast array of different “nos”: against too much capitalism (the extreme left), against the loss of national identity (the orthodox protestant party), against Turkey and immigration (assorted populists), against the euro pushing prices up, against the Dutch guilder being devalued vis-a-vis the euro, against unemployment, against European enlargement (Brussels costs the Dutch 180 euros per capita annually, the highest cut in the European Union), and most of all, against the political establishment. Talk about an “information deficit.”
Statistics reveal that only 4% of Dutch voters said they were influenced by the French “non.” This means that the constitution has been rejected in these two EU founding members by both sides of the spectrum – from federalists to Atlanticists. No wonder Europe’s political elites are now immersed in a deep, existential funk. This monumental crisis may spell catharsis or catastrophe. It all hinges on political will.
The status quo revolutionaries
Europe’s disaster movie at least is generating an all-out hyperinflation of European debate – from Englishmen praising people power, EU-style, to Turks and Portuguese blaming a bunch of overprivileged fops afraid of the future, from Spaniards perplexed by France’s flirt with the abyss to hopeful Swedes proposing a new start to get a new text, from the Swiss deriding “status quo revolutionaries” to Polish right-wingers screaming that Polish identity as well may be lost. Even the Argentinian daily Clarin worries that the “no” will have serious consequences for other regional integrations, including Mercosur, South America’s smaller EU-like cousin.
The mood in Brussels is not all somber. A Polish diplomat is openly telling his peers, “I’m proud that 150 Polish plumbers have managed to scare 60 million Frenchmen: what a sign of lack of self-confidence.” A high-level European Commission official told Asia Times Online, “France’s loss of leadership will logically profit Great Britain, which will take the EU’s presidency on July 1 with a reform program based on deregulation and flexibility of job markets. France may try to oppose it, but it will be in the minority, and not too credible.” It’s what French daily Liberation has dubbed “Plan B(lair).”
The official adds this will be “cruel and tragic for those who have voted ‘non’ – some are really sincere – because the neo-liberal turning of the screws will be terrible.” A more “social” Europe seems to be doomed: a French diplomat says, “This is when we will see to which extent we shot ourselves in the foot. Social Europe is even more affected than any other policy. The dynamic of national egos is back in place.”
Other EU diplomats stress how the new French prime minister – the aristocratic, poet/philosopher/ultimate insider Dominique de Villepin – could not but be “a joke,” an aristocrat playing left-winger at the Council of Ministers in Brussels: “De Villepin is hated in London. The British will make him pay for his opposition to the war in Iraq, and will make a scarecrow of ‘old Europe.'” On a separate, crucial development, it’s been decided – without a debate – that there will be no more structural funds to help the new members of Eastern Europe – something that the extreme left “non” in France was stridently advocating.
Amid all the gloom and doom, European diplomats and officials are trying their best to come up with escape routes until 2010. So far, some decisions have been reached. “No ambitious reconstruction initiatives for the next two years, because the right political conditions are not there”; some sort of institutional “collage” to keep Europe running; and an inter-government conference in 2007 to maybe arrive at a new treaty by 2010, “where we will be re-served the worst while the best, the values of the union and the social charter, will be left in the background.”
The dark side of the force
An EU diplomat tries to sum it all up in one sound bite: “We’re in outer space…the dark side of the force has won.”
A collective text circulating frantically in Brussels since Monday points out, “Europe so far has been the ideal alibi for governments, whatever their political colors, to endorse certain ‘unsaleable’ responsibilities in front of public opinion.” The European utopia may be alive in Brussels, but in individual European countries the name of the game seems to be indifference – if not outright rage.
The text outlines some key concepts: “courage”; “humanism”; looking beyond nationalist cultures; “fraternity”; the European adventure of a “unique community, a model in many aspects to other continents.” Could it be that the double French-Dutch “no” will lead to people finally being consulted about their dream of Europe – in the cleansing ritual of a pan-European debate?
Or maybe the truth is simpler, and infinitely more brutal: the dream of a politically united Europe – a salutary counterpower to the US superpower – has been lost because there are no more visionaries to sell it to their own citizens.