Non to the constitution…or to enlargement?

Article published on May 2, 2005
community published
Article published on May 2, 2005

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

The French referendum on the European constitution, planned for May 29, is getting closer and the No vote is ahead in the polls. Here’s why.

The French Non has a new dimension in 2005: alongside the traditional anti-European No vote, a No camp is emerging from amongst the avowed pro-Europeans. This, at last, can ease the pressure on those who have been picked on by the No camp for reasons which have not always had much to do with Europe. Indeed we are told that rejecting the constitution will have basically no impact beyond that of bringing the Heads of State of the European governments back to the negotiating table and that, this time round, the French are certain to get a better treaty. Yet voting No will have consequences and they will not be at all positive; for France or for Europe. In effect, the verdict given by the French on May 29 on the question put to them will represent a response to an altogether different question: can we still place our trust in Europe?

A first breach of trust

With the launch of the process of European integration in the 1950s it was precisely on such trust that our forbears decided to build an alternative peace to the one promised by a global balance of power premised on nuclear threats. The power of the European ideal lies at the heart of this trust in a ‘European dream’ of peace; of living together; of resolving our differences non-violently and of providing a solid framework so that, at long last, the words “never again” might no longer seem like empty rhetoric. It is also an ideal founded in a sense of solidarity, a social solidarity which crosses all borders… Yet how can we envisage Europe as a joint political project for the future if compromise no longer seems possible and if, quite simply, we are no longer willing to place our trust in such a process? Here, saying No represents a refusal to compromise and a refusal to work together. A No verdict by France to the constitution would signify the first breach of trust in the Union. Why? Because, contrary to Great Britain whose No verdict would neither be a surprise nor a particular set-back, France remains the founding member of the European Union and its driving force. Moreover, trust between the different member states, already significantly weakened by the crisis over Iraq, would be effectively shattered.

Two-speed Europe or a Europe of two?

For the ten new members of the EU club, the ill-feeling shown towards them by existing member states, and in particular France and Germany as regards financing the enlargement, has already given rise to a feeling of rejection which is fuelling the campaigns of local Eurosceptics. It is now likely that such groups will be returned to power in Poland and the Czech Republic in a few months time. Meanwhile, the continuing controversy in France over outsourcing to the new member states, as touched upon in the recent two-hour television show where Chirac attempted to convince French youths to vote Yes in the referendum, shows the extent to which the latest enlargement has been viewed negatively in France, with fears of hordes arriving from the East remaining firmly entrenched. Basically, saying No to the constitution now is a way of saying No to an enlargement over which the public was not consulted. Because we do not trust these ‘Czecho-slavics’ and ‘Yugo-slovaks’ who are infiltrating our ranks whilst being in league with the evil American Empire. If we vote No now, they will not trust us either. “Never mind!” the No campaigners tell us, “we’ll create a two-speed Europe or a Europe of six, just like in the beginning”. Or even, if necessary, a Europe of two – a partnership of France and Germany only. This is little different to what the former French Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, is saying when he speaks to us of enhanced cooperation among a group of core countries. In this vision, those eastern Barbarians will have to remain at the door. Because Europe is certainly not for those upstarts who steal our jobs and our factories…

Showing Europe the finger

This draft constitution is one chance, perhaps the last, for us to re-establish trust in Europe, in a shared project and a common text which, let’s not forget, has been signed by all 25 governments. The No camp argues that, once ratified, it will be impossible to get the necessary unanimity for amendments to be made. And yet they also claim that to entirely renegotiate the text prior to voting Yes is a simple exercise! This is some paradox, given that the current wording was reached not without difficulty, following four years of negotiations, drafting and consensus-building and, like all compromises, was never going to please everyone. Rejecting this text out of hand, under the pretext of not understanding it, not liking Chirac or hoping to replace him, would therefore be an act of stupidity. Furthermore, calling on people to vote No by promising ‘a different Europe’, which the extreme left will have no role in building anyway since it will no longer have the power to do so, is simply demagoguery. Nor will voting No prevent the type of European policies enshrined in part III of the Constitution from existing, since that is effectively what we have now. It will simply deprive us of all the improvements brought about by the new text. Ultimately, voting No will have the overall effect of showing the rest of Europe the finger. Coming from Philippe de Villiers, leader of the Eurosceptic Movement for France, this would be no surprise, but coming from someone who proclaims themselves pro-European, it is somewhat paradoxical. And contrary to what the No camp would have us believe, such an outcome would be charged with consequences; both for France and for Europe.