Listen to the people

Last year, on October 29, Europe’s leaders celebrated the signing of the European Constitution in Rome, in the same venue where the six original member states signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Seven months later, the electorate of one of these six founders, France, rejected the European Constitution with 55 percent of the vote. President Jacques Chirac and the French government clearly overestimated the power of the «yes» camp, whose main arguments can be summed up as «Europe means peace» and «The constitution will make the EU more efficient and democratic.» But the supporters still revealed a thinly disguised hint of «Don’t vote no, it will be a disaster.» Although opinion polls showed the «yes» camp up as late as March 2005, a gradual slide in the weeks that followed resulted in a rejection of the referendum. In the few weeks before the French referendum, other European leaders rushed to the rescue of President Chirac, warning of the dire consequences of a «non» for France, for Europe, for the whole world. They stressed the fact that there would be no second referendum, no renegotiation, no Plan B. It was now or never. And the French people said «never.» Not intimidated by pressure from their elite, 70 percent of the citizens turned out to vote and 55 percent said «non» to the European Constitution. There are many ways one can interpret this result. One of them is related to concerns about the future of France. The French are dissatisfied with their political and economic situation, where unemployment has reached 10 percent, growth is slow and the popularity of the president and the prime minister is at its lowest. Recent attempts to introduce employment and pension reforms only led to demonstrations and further disaffection. Furthermore, the French are concerned about the future of Europe. Many of them view the European Constitution as an Anglo-Saxon plot, which will only make French employees more vulnerable to increasingly competitive economic pressures by immigrants who accept lower wages and Central and Eastern European countries that have lower taxes. These pragmatic concerns are coupled with less concrete fears about the uncertain role of France in a Europe of 25 member states and the possible entry of Turkey. Serious as these French concerns may be, they don’t present a coherent argument for a different kind of Europe. The supporters of the «non» range from the extreme-left to the extreme-right of the French political spectrum, grouping together objections but not producing a clear alternative. So, thankful as one may be to the French for opening the way for a European debate and posing the question «What kind of Europe?» instead of «How much Europe?» the French only declare their disenchantment with the current direction of European integration, but they don’t provide an alternative vision. On the other hand, one could draw a second meaning from the French rejection: that the citizens want to be heard. And that their objections may not only be related to the direction of European integration – the overly liberal European economy – but to the very procedures of European decision-making. Having been ignored for over 50 years in the process of European integration, European citizens want to be heard. For five decades, European leaders have been negotiating the future of Europe behind the closed doors of the Council, only going to experts for their opinions, confirming the agreements by other technocratic elites and then asking their people to ratify the deal. This is not to disregard the responsibility that the people themselves bear for their lack of knowledge and interest in European affairs. However, European leaders have been elitist for quite a long time, often paternalistic and arrogant when they state that «people cannot understand complex European issues, so these should not be put to popular vote» or declare that «people are not sophisticated enough to understand the referendum question and answer different questions.» In this respect, the outcome of the French referendum cannot be interpreted alone in relation to the European Constitution. It may be seen as the continuity of the petit «oui» in the Treaty of Maastricht, the Irish rejection in the treaty of Nice, the low turnout in European elections and the demonstrations outside the strictly guarded meetings of the European Council. The French have different and often conflicting reasons for saying «non» to the constitution. But maybe their message was clearer that one might think: «Include us.» (1) Elli Siapkidou is Junior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

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