To no one’s surprise, the Netherlands this week rejected the proposed European Union constitution. Coming on the heels of the French “no” last weekend, the EU now faces a serious reckoning. European leaders insist that the ratification process should proceed on schedule, but the resounding verdicts by voters in two of the EU founding states are impossible to ignore.
Dutch voters sent a clear message in their Wednesday ballot. More than 61 percent of voters said “no” to the treaty, a higher level than in France. Turnout was also high: Nearly 63 percent of Dutch voters cast ballots, a marked contrast to the 39 percent who voted in European parliamentary elections last year.
Opinion polls had shown widespread negative sentiment. As in France, much of the discontent sprang from domestic politics: The Netherlands’ economy has been hit by inflation following the introduction of the euro, and the vote was a slap at the government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.
Just as important is rising concern about the growing power of the Brussels bureaucracy. While the French worried about the erosion of their way of life — globalization ostensibly cloaked by EU mandates — Dutch voters were concerned that the union would threaten liberal social policies, such as the legalization of marijuana and prostitution that many consider synonymous with modern Dutch identity. These fears were compounded by other concerns, such as being swamped by immigrants from EU newcomer states, an anxiety amplified by recent acts of ethnic violence in the Netherlands.
EU leaders will hold a regular summit June 16-17, and future steps will dominate the discussions. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the ratification process should continue, despite the “unilateral” decisions of some countries. Nine states, representing more than half of EU citizens, have already approved the constitution. Latvia’s Parliament was expected to do the same by a large majority Thursday. Other countries, such as Britain and Poland, may soon decide on how they will proceed.
Plainly, EU governments cannot continue with business as usual. Two of the six founding states of “Europe” have rejected the constitution. On a per capita basis, the Netherlands is the largest contributor to the Union. In recent years, the EU has enlarged from 15 states to 25; the constitution was an attempt to rationalize decision-making and operating procedures to accommodate the growing number of members. A number of states are still waiting to join. That process has most likely been put on hold in the aftermath of this week’s two votes as financial support for new members has been a key element of accession discussions.
The “no” poses real problems for EU relations with Turkey. The prospect of Turkish membership, which is still only being contemplated, looms large over thinking about the Union in most member states. Yet for the Union to turn its back on Turkish membership — especially after it has been held out as a carrot to encourage reform in Ankara — would drive a wedge between Europe and regions further East, potentially destabilizing Turkey itself and making permanent the wedge between the West and “the rest.”
Another important side effect is the likely slowing of attempts to remedy structural defects that have slowed or retarded European economies. Although the euro zone will be unaffected — since its existence is independent of the constitution — Brussels’ ability to increase competitiveness has been severely constrained. The irony is that it is Brussels’ capacity to push reform that has unnerved so many voters. Amid calls to scrap the constitution and start over, the Czech Republic has called for an extension of the November 2006 deadline for ratification to permit “no” voters to reconsider.
Given the nature of the constitution itself — a lengthy, jargon-ridden document that offers little inspiration — a rewrite makes sense, although the difficulties of the first constitutional convention make that a daunting proposition.
Linguistic deficiencies, however, are evidence of a more fundamental flaw, one that has long haunted the EU: the distance between the Union and its constituents. The Union was designed to better the lives of its citizens, first by lifting the threat of war and then by promoting prosperity. Yet the process has been driven by elites, leaving ordinary citizens increasingly estranged from the institutions and mechanism that affect their daily lives. This “democratic deficit” is the root of increasing anxiety about the future of the Union. This week’s “no” votes are an unmistakable signal: Supporters of the EU must focus on European citizens and respond to their fears before the process of integration can resume.
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