In search of “plan B”

Article published on May 30, 2005
Article published on May 30, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Prior to the French referendum, pressure was put on the public to vote Yes, with politicians pointing out that “there is no plan B”. So what is going to happen now that France has voted No?

After the Constitutional Treaty was signed in Rome on 29 October 2004, the EU leaders set out to have the document ratified within the following two years. So far, ten countries have ratified the so-called EU Constitution, either in referenda or in parliament, but there are still up to eight countries which have referenda to hold. The French failure to ratify changes the political scenery fundamentally and, unfortunately, the EU does not have an official plan B to solve the dilemma. Nevertheless, alternative scenarios are slowly starting to crystallise.

Stepping into the unknown

Besides dealing an ideological blow to “the ever closer union”, there are now practical issues to deal with. Criticisms of the constitutional treaty are plentiful: Some find the document too economically liberal, others too socialist; some find it too federal, others not enough; and nearly everyone agrees that it is unnecessarily lengthy and complicated. So how can a basis for renegotiation be found when it is dependent on all 25 EU member states agreeing? It is this conundrum that has led most European leaders to claim that they will press on with the ratification process without re-negotiating the treaty, desperately hoping that if only France votes No the constitution will come into force in any case. Indeed, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who chaired the drafting of the Constitution, told the French weekly L’Express “There won't be a new text because we won't be able to ask the countries that have ratified to forget their votes". Furthermore, at the end of April, the former EU Commission president Jacques Delors suggested that if all remaining states ratify the constitution, France could be obliged to hold another referendum. This vote would then be linked to EU membership to increase the likelihood of ratification.

However, considering the opposition to the document in some remaining countries, particularly in the UK, this is a risky tactic. So will the constitution fade into insignificance if more member states fail to ratify? An updated treaty of some sort is desperately needed to guarantee the smooth functioning of the enlarged Union. Although the EU and its institutions could legally continue to work on the basis of the Nice Treaty, this was designed for 15, not 25, member states and as such is not a feasible long-term solution. If EU leaders accept that there is no immediate future for the constitution they will have to work on the most pressing issues, such as economic policy and common defence and security, and slim down the existing treaties, ratifying a new simplified document by parliamentary votes instead of referenda. But even this may be difficult as although most member states might agree to implement policies like the Qualified Majority Voting to streamline decision making, the recent controversy over a proposed European services directive foreshadows the difficulties ahead in trying to create consent among all members. Meanwhile, individual member states might take matters into their own hands by cooperating and reaching bilateral agreements outside the EU agenda.

The real challenge lies now in dealing with the change of atmosphere in Europe. Plagued by increasing Euroscepticism, certain French have already envisaged the re-organisation of Europe into a union of the original six members. The EU would then consist of a politically integrated core and a looser economic union on its outskirts. In this scenario, countries could adopt different degrees of political integration to suit their national preferences, leading to a multi-layered Europe with overlapping structures dependent on cooperation. The EU might then come to resemble and degrade to the status of any other international organisation, like the Organisation for European Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, for example. Even if such radical change is not undertaken, a period of “Eurosclerosis” (as The Economist put it) is looming. Many of the national governments might seize the chance to opt out of uncomfortable policies and the already fragile EU discipline would continue to unravel.

After the failure to convince its citizens of the benefits of the constitutional treaty, the leaders of the EU 25 now face a problem of legitimacy. Nonetheless, the shock that the French Non has caused might work to reinvigorate the European project, hence supporting the case for a new European Constitution. Since the French have not cast their vote against a European future, but rather against particular issues associated with the vote on the constitution such as the accession of Turkey, EU leaders now need to de-dramatise the French rejection by making a real effort to simplify the treaty and bring it closer to the people. A renegotiation will consume time and energy but considering what is at stake, it’s definitely worth the endeavour.