Unresolved issues return to haunt the EU

Fallout from the constitutional storm is raining down on Europe, and it is not a gentle spring shower but a pounding summer downpour. Postmortems from the two consecutive and decisive rejections in France and the Netherlands are flying about, as are questions about the European Union’s capacity to deal with the crisis now before it, especially as much of that crisis has been self-generated. Europe is not having a good year. After a heady 2004, pumped up by a massive enlargement of 10 new members, a soaring euro, completion of a huge (now possibly abortive) constitutional project, an inflated sense of European leaders’ ability to rally world opinion over the Iraqi war and promises of wider reforms, the European Union resembles a collapsed souffle. The two referendum defeats have forced many unresolved issues to a head, with the 250-page constitution – which set out to solve those issues – itself serving as a hefty lightning rod. Political tsunami Some things are clear in the votes’ messy wake. A bewildering confluence of public negativity proved fatal; European leadership is sorely wanting; people are angry and not afraid to show it; the selling of the constitution was a well-rounded disaster. Other things are less clear, such as its potential knock-on effect and the fate of those countries (Croatia, Romania, and especially Turkey) waiting nervously in line to join. It also remains to be seen what will become of the many ideas and reforms that were painstakingly worked out and adopted by the Constitutional Convention. Even if the treaty itself is ditched (still no certainty; despite the two noisy rejections, parliaments in Austria, Germany and Latvia all voted quietly in favor over the past week) those who put it together will hardly sit and watch all its elements drain away like rivulets in the mud. Many will find their way into European praxis one way or another. But more broadly, the old logic of ever-closer integration without a parallel electoral component has been dealt a huge blow. With close to two-thirds of Dutch citizens having rejected the treaty after 55 percent of the French did likewise, Europeans have reason to be deeply concerned over the future of their 50-year integrationist project; few outside Europe care all that much about the pummeling that the document has taken. They should be, however, should Europe take a serious turn inward at a time of international tensions needing transatlantic cooperation and massive development in East Asia that promises to shift the world’s political and economic balance in coming years. What has occurred was clearly the culmination of simmering popular resentment over unmet promises by Europe’s political class, together with fears that the traditional social net may be yanked away. When anger and fear come to dominate a political debate, scapegoating is usually close behind and, in this case, not just the (little-read) constitution itself but «others» – eurocrats, immigrants, neo-liberal reformers, east Europeans – have been convenient targets. The EU is facing a crisis of legitimacy: Many of its policies and institutions, as well as its identity and direction, are suddenly in question. This is partly because a huge and unwieldy would-be political union has been superimposed on the same basic structure that has been around since the beginning – not quite of time, but of the original European Economic Community in the 1950s. For 50 years, legitimacy questions could be skirted as, despite hiccups, the EU was on an expansionary path that spread its benefits widely. Much of the crisis, in fact, has grown out of the very successes of earlier years; for example, fears over mass immigration would not exist was the EU’s single market not such a draw. The EU has grown by leaps and bounds, from six countries before 1973 to 25 today – a four-fold increase in 30 years. Last year’s massive enlargement exacerbated existing tensions, split the EU into divergent visions, and showed that France is no longer the EU linchpin it has long claimed to be. Europe may seem to move glacially, but the changes have been dizzying when measured in terms of the life of a polity. Another target of the debates has been the nameless, faceless eurocrats populating Brussels, the (unelected) European Commission’s nuts and bolts, who are supposedly poking their interventionist fingers into all corners of the continent in an effort to «homogenize» Europe by regulating everyone to death. For all Europe’s claims to being different from the US, this tendency to reject centralization and bureaucratization is happening in both places. Everyone loves to hate the eurocrats and ridicule the technocratic gobbledygook that usually accompanies European legislation, without always understanding that they are, in the main, talented professionals with stressful jobs who represent the new breed of cosmopolitan, multilingual European that most young people aspire to be and which their parents could have only dreamed of being. ‘Democratic’ union This week’s populist eruption also indicated just how far the EU is from being a democratic project. People are finally waking up to the fact that the EU has become a crucial part of their lives, and believe that it has crept up on them. «Integration by stealth» it has been called, but the direction has been clear enough. Back in the 1980s, then-Commission President Jacques Delors said that 80 percent of all legislation affecting Europeans was already being made in Brussels. Was anyone listening then? The EU is not, and never has been, a democracy; rather, it links democratic states together through a web of interests and institutions. It began as mainly a trade bloc to integrate economies so that war would never again be possible in Europe. It was elitist rather than populist in conception – democracy was newly restored in Germany and Italy and still non-existent in Spain and Portugal – and remains so. This was fine so long as the EU did not «aim higher,» in trying to speak with one voice in world affairs and apply a single group of standards for Europeans themselves. The European bargain shifted in 1991 with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, and we are now seeing the culmination of frustrations with the gap between such high-blown ambitions and actual performance. What was long a «community» was now to be a «union,» replete with European citizenship, common foreign, defense and interior policies and a single currency linking a borderless continent. Maastricht ran into its own ratification problems, not least in France, but in the heady wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and pushed by powerful and influential leaders like Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, the project seemed full of promise. In the decade and more since, the EU has grown larger and more remote while economies have stagnated, old institutions were stretched, and key rules like the Stability Pact on budgetary discipline were openly flouted by major countries. The high aspirations never really materialized, apart from the single currency, while the disconnect between leaders and led grew wider. Last year’s «big bang» brought in 10 new countries with little reason to bow down to the demands of the older members and which brought economic uncertainties and divergent approaches into sharp relief. «Old Europe» is reacting belatedly to what has already transpired. Clearly, the EU must decide whether it wants to make the long-resisted democratic leap, but the past week has shown that doing so would hardly guarantee a smoother ride. For any political union, even an aspiring one, democratic input is vital, but nobody said democracy was painless.

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