End of the highway for the European Constitution?Two referenda over the next week will be decisive

Ends often come suddenly in political life. Rugs are pulled out from underneath, winds turn ill, voters rise up, backs are stabbed, metaphorically at least, by erstwhile partners. And in a week that may have signaled the beginning of the end for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has called for rare early elections after his Socialist Party suffered a stinging setback in its own heartland, the European Constitution may be facing its own Waterloo within days, and with much wider consequences – though not all of them negative. With France voting in a referendum on Sunday, and Dutch voters following three days after that – and the kaleidoscopic «no» camps in both countries holding the upper hand – these two member states could effectively bring the curtain down on the European Union’s bold attempt to streamline its operations and give itself a more cohesive identity. One defeat would be a distinct setback; two resounding ones would drag it into uncharted territory. But whatever happens in the two votes, the EU has already had many comfortable assumptions defied, not least that both countries would blithely fall in line as «good Europeans.» The conversion of amorphous anti-EU sentiment into a focused, negative triumph at the polls would be much more than a reality check, but still short of a calamity. A «no» vote on the constitution was foreseeable, even likely, somewhere along the line. A case could even be made that requiring unanimity is self-defeating with 25 members, and that a better way would be to require a large majority, or even hold a single, Europe-wide referendum. But under current circumstances, a defeat will inevitably shake up the prevailing mind-set – that the process of building a political union in Europe should remain an elite project, removed from the ebb and flow of normal democratic processes. This is a situation which once-a-decade EU referenda, which always seem to deteriorate into plebiscites on governmental popularity and occasions for showing anger, merely serve to emphasize. It is, of course, possible that the «yes» camps in both countries can pull off a miracle on the day. It has happened before. Most major parties are in favor, while both countries have been backbones of the European project as two of the original six member states. Plus, ruling parties always have a battery of instruments to draw on, not least appeals on state-owned television (like French President Jacques Chirac’s scheduled for last night). The populist «no» campaigns are hardly likely to get equal airtime to state their cases. Then again, they hardly need it. Uphill battle It has not been a good year for Europe so far, with delays in the single market for services, difficulties in digesting 10 new members, stagnant economies, a falling euro, and defensiveness over how to engage China, Iran and others, especially in the face of a determined diplomatic offensive from the US to ensure that the European wing of NATO remains intact. Its key states and personalities are hardly celebrating either. The Economist weekly called Italy «the real sick man of Europe» in a cover article. Time magazine labeled French President Jacques Chirac Europe’s dinosaur. Germany’s red-green coalition is tottering. Euro-optimists are an endangered species in the face of growing unemployment and economic stagnation. Throw volatile referenda into the mix at such a time, especially on a hot-potato document that reaches so widely, and setbacks are not just possible but probable. The last time France held a referendum on Europe, in 1992 over the Maastricht Treaty, the «no» camp was similarly poised for a victory until a televised appeal by President Francois Mitterrand helped secure a razor-thin passage. That was in a much more favorable European environment than now. French leadership in Europe has been ebbing since, with the expansion to 25 that included most of Eastern Europe, which is little disposed to accepting the Gallic statist vision for Europe. Now the cards are considerably more stacked, as the French economy lags and nostalgia for better days trumps realism – even its leadership’s enthusiasm for the European idea seems to be waning. The Dutch case is odder on the surface, again unsurprising below. If any country deserves the reputation of «assumed pro-European,» it is the Netherlands. It was one of the original integrationists – not just of the Common Market in 1957 but even earlier, as a member of Benelux, a customs union with Belgium and Luxembourg created back in 1948, boasts a cooperative political culture, and is well positioned to benefit from a more liberal EU economic policy. Yet the Dutch have also been the largest single contributors to the EU budget on a struggling economy, are suffering severe tensions over rights for the Islamic minority there, and have typically been overlooked for major EU posts (no Dutch man or woman has ever headed the European Commission, for example). This is the first time, ever, that the Dutch people have been asked to vote on any EU project, and a «no» vote there, following one by France, could be the coup de grace for the treaty. Its leaders, as with France’s, may now be looking longingly at Greece’s solution, which was to vote for it in Parliament rather than opening the Pandora’s box of public opinion. Previous hiccups in EU treaty ratification – including in Denmark and Ireland – have been manageable, like rocks that get in the way of a torrent; the water just finds a way around it. A French rejection would clearly present a much more serious blockage, as would a Dutch one – where, after all, creating dams to hold back the waters has a long history. Learning through setback A rejection by either, or even both, could turn out to be a tonic of sorts for Europe. First, some shock treatment is probably needed to force a realization that the old ways of operating are no longer working; that you cannot run a political system, especially one by and for democracies, on a non-democratic basis, whether by bureaucratic fiat or by late-night decisions at weekend summits. Such an arrangement is neither responsive nor responsible. The constitution actually takes steps toward openness, but still tentative ones. Second, a defeat now would actually save Europe a great deal of time, money, and effort, as a decisive British rejection a year from now would still stop the ratification train anyway. It is better to face the music sooner rather than later; here the EU can take a tip from Schroeder. Third, any catharsis would underscore that Europe as a political project can only go as far as the European economy can carry it, as most of the continent has been stuck in a low-growth, high-unemployment, bureaucratically stifled environment that has increased anxiety about the future. Much has been written about the EU’s lack of a Plan B in case of rejection by one or more states. In a way, the document’s backers have had to engage in double-talk by, on the one hand, arguing that defeat would have devastating consequences for Europe, while on the other, insisting that business will go on as usual. Any Plan B, even if it exists, cannot have been discussed publicly beforehand, for obvious reasons, but we can be sure that stopgap measures will be swirling on the day after. Voters, a fickle lot, often say «no» when given the chance. That’s the price of relying on the flawed method of referendum voting. But if the European project has life as a democratic organism, then it will overcome such setbacks. It has become far too important as a factor in international relations not to.