The Netherlands followed France in rejecting the EU Constitution in a referendum earlier this month. While France has long been the driving political force behind European integration, the Netherlands has also been a key player in the integration process.
The “no” votes by these countries should be taken seriously. The economic integration of the European Union — complete with its common euro currency — is not likely to regress, but it is undeniable that the momentum for political integration has suffered a setback.
Britain has already reacted by freezing its own referendum on the EU Constitution. In principle, the EU Constitution needs to be ratified by all 25 member states, but there is a provision saying that the European Summit should deal with the matter as long as the Constitution has been approved by at least 20 countries.
However, a rejection by six or more members could effectively scrap the Constitution. Thus the way the EU’s other members react to Britain’s decision is being closely watched.
The two countries reportedly rejected the Constitution due to unemployment fears and religious problems.
To me, however, it seems that voters did not reject any of the written provisions of the Constitution, such as guarantee of European citizenship, the creation of an EU president and a foreign minister to integrate regional diplomacy, and a strengthened European Parliament.
Instead, it appears the outcome reflects Europeans’ general uncertainty about the future — triggered by the EU’s rapid eastward expansion — and their doubts about European identity.
The history of European integration has included a series of “deepening” and “widening” processes. The French and Dutch rejections suggest that the centripetal force of the European integration has not been fully deepened to match the centrifugal force created by its rapid expansion.
Last year’s expansion added as many as 10 new members, and more countries from Eastern Europe are expected to join in coming years. This has created the prospect of further influxes of inexpensive labor and fears of job losses in countries where labor costs are still high due to lagging structural reforms.
These fears, it seems, have combined with sentiment against exchanges with countries of different cultural backgrounds.
What, then, is the situation in Asia?
On the basis of increased mutual economic dependency through establishment of regional production networks, various subregional arrangements, such as free-trade agreements and the ASEAN-plus-three process, have been created.
Even the idea of an East Asian community has become a topic of discussion.
But even in economic terms, there are still huge gaps in development separating the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Among the “plus-three” countries, there is also a large gap in the per capita incomes of Japan and South Korea — both members of the OECD — and China, which is still in the process of economic liberalization.
Furthermore, the political systems and democratic practices of Asian countries differ a lot, and it is hard to find common features in their policies on national security.
The Europeans’ path toward integration started with a political initiative to never again start war on their own soil. On the other hand, there is little or no centripetal force for Asian integration from a political or security standpoint. In some countries, we are even witnessing the rise of exclusionary nationalism. Recognition of past history often becomes a problem.
But the past is connected to the present. It is of course important to reflect on the past, but we should learn from the lessons of Europe to make use of the past to make a better today. That has not been achieved in Asia, given that there is a country that invades the territorial waters of another and refuses to apologize for vandalism on a foreign embassy.
It is necessary to pursue projects that may lead to the dream of an Asian integration. But the EU’s experience tells us that you have to have a good balance between the processes of deepening and widening. We have to fully recognize that there are large gaps in economic development in the region, and that there is very little basis for sharing common political values.
We should not be swept away by a pipe dream that does not reflect reality, but look calmly at the current situation. That will be the first step toward achieving regional integration in the future.