LONDON — The “no” vote that seems to have blown apart the whole European project is a crisis of the elites and institutions of Europe, not of the people. In fact, if the jubilant faces of many French people on Monday was a true signal, it might be taken as a triumph for the citizens against those elites, rather than against the European Union: Enough, stop taking us for granted, if it’s to be our Europe, stop locking yourselves away in secret summits buttressed by large expense accounts and fancy dinners and old world protocols. Consult us, engage with us, make it our Europe.
But that’s almost as much an illusion as the fear that the new, expanded EU will now crumble. Because there is no single body of European citizens, united with a single common view about what sort of body they want the EU to be.
Every European country has its body of naysayers — those who think their own nation can do better without the entanglements of EU laws and institutions, and who perceive the diminution of national sovereignty entailed in EU membership as a mortal blow to national survival. This view is perhaps stronger in Britain than anywhere else for historical reasons. Some of these have to do with empire, some to do with American links, some to do with being an island on the edge of continental Europe.
For some, the most important reason is that Britain enjoys a long history as an independent nation although, contrary to popular British opinion, the existing entity of Britain is younger than all the other West European nations. This is because the partition of Ireland, affixing the North to Britain and separating the rest, only came into existence in 1921. Still, the fact that the “heartland” has the longest continuous existence as an uninvaded independent nation of any powers is the mythology of British uniqueness.
Perhaps disappointingly for those who believe Britain can and should withdraw from the EU, they now have no direct role in the crisis of the constitution. It’s precisely because it was the French who said “no” that it is a crisis.
What is the EU without the French, the guiding spirit from its origination to the writing of the constitution? What was the central dynamic of the EU from the start if not to create a working relationship, if not amity, between France and Germany? Who, if not France, has had the strongest voice urging the idea of the EU as a superpower to “balance” and oppose the United States?
Of course, unlike Britain, the conflict between the French and their governing elite has more to do with hostility to the American economic way and their elite’s grudging acceptance of it than with the remote EU bureaucracy. For the American way implies globalization.
The new global markets in labor and capital, driven and shaped by English-based electronic communication, is seen as a gain, a torrent of fresh air, to the backwaters of Eastern Europe and accepted in a mood of resignation as the inevitable in Britain.
To many citizens in the old EU countries, globalization is all loss. In a hot haze of angry nostalgia, the pre-globalization days are misremembered as sunny years of secure employment, housing, education and welfare for all. There were none of the problems of immigrant workers who don’t speak the language or know and honor the customs, none of the terror of firms suddenly downsizing or outsourcing to undeserving countries in the Far East. Whatever their individual history, many citizens of European nations feel their history has been trampled over in the rush to join the new world order.
It seems highly unlikely that British Prime Minister Tony Blair will now call a referendum on the constitution. Although, with membership now up to 25, the constitution could still be ratified by enough countries, without France and the Netherlands, another founding nation (whose voters rejected the constitution Wednesday), what would be the point?
The EU can rumble along, as is, without a constitution, but it cannot integrate the new members, with their very different economic and political practices, without a new set of commonly accepted rules. If several of the founding members withhold their assent to this new framework, what other power can hold together this disparate collection of nations? Certainly not Britain with its halfhearted commitment and various opt-outs from existing rules. So why hold a referendum in Britain that would almost certainly vote no?
The point made by the elites is that this constitution has been crafted with great delicacy to allow for the development of free trade in services and intellectual goods as well as material products, without overly jeopardizing the rights of settled residents.
Such was the difficult labor in arriving at this delicate balance that “there is no plan B.” There is no alternative version of the constitution that will better please the peoples of Western Europe. The British may not care whether there is a plan B, as too few people here have given a thought to how to make the EU work, resting as we do on memories of empire and current links with the U.S. But citizens of other member states do care, and what they want is incompatible with a globalized economy.
The EU Constitution, and what the citizens of Western Europe want, are two utterly different things. The citizens feel helpless in the face of global brands and marketing. The EU Constitution offers no weapons to fight that helplessness, but it was never intended to. The designers of the constitution wanted to make the EU a working entity in the global marketplace, while the citizens of the EU want their institutions to fight the depredations of the global market.
Whether they halt this scrambling for an institutional foothold in the global market or get pulled along in it depends on which national elites can best persuade their people where their interest lies.
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