Back to the Drawing Board For the European Union By PAOLO PONTONIERE Pacific News Service

Tuesday June 07, 2005

French and Dutch voters’ rejection of the European constitution wasn’t a fluke, as some European statesmen would have us believe, but it isn’t the death of the European Union either, as some doomsday prophets on both sides of the Atlantic predict. It is, however, the most serious crisis the union has faced since its inception in 1995.  

European citizens have rejected other EU treaties. When the Treaty of Nice, the charter that regulates the EU, was first put up for approval in 2001 by the Irish government, the Irish people voted it down. Before it subsequently passed it had to be amended by an ad hoc declaration stating Ireland’s military neutrality. In 1993, even the Maastrich Treaty, which was approved by a narrow margin in France and established the euro and the EU as we know them, was rejected in Denmark.  

However, the voters of France and Holland, by the sheer power of their numbers—62 percent and 55 percent “against” in the Netherlands and France, respectively—have spoken much louder today.  

Their rejection of the charter marks a serious defeat for the EU’s organizing principle that a strong axis of nations—either a Anglo-Franco-German alliance, or a Franco-German or a Spanish-Franco-German alliance—should lie at the core of the union.  

It is also a defeat for the Europe of globalization, in which economics—marketing and the rules of monetary exchanges—prevail over the need for a common welfare policy and respect for national specificities. The vote is a rebuke as well of the European Commission in Brussels, which has been criticized by European citizens as bureaucratic, dictatorial and distant.  

Without a coordination of national economies and labor policies, the euro has become a lightning rod. “Since the introduction of the euro, popular discontent has run high across Europe,” says Maurizio Ottavi, a Roman accountant. “Prices doubled, the quality of life worsened and to make up for the loss of revenues and deficits, governments are hitting on the welfare system.”  

The European Union model can’t provide a balance between economic liberalism and a social safety net, writes Bernardo Valli in Italy’s la Repubblica. “The rules dictated by the Union are perceived as long on liberalism and short on equality—in sum, it’s too Anglo-Saxon.”  

France’s and Holland’s “No” seems to agree with Valli. In France, 81 percent of blue collar workers voted “non,” while 62 percent of white-collar workers said “oui.” Thirty-five percent wanted to renegotiate the EU’s rules, 46 percent deplored unemployment. Only a majority of voters over 60 years old approved of the constitution.  

“The country is frustrated with the elites who are unable or unwilling to put a stop to globalization, to guarantee jobs and to block off-shoring,” writes Gianpiero Martinotti, a political analyst in France. “These people are worried about the end of an era in which the state had a protective role.”  

Not everybody lost during the vote, however. The result was good news for Umberto Bossi of Italy’s Lega Nord, Jean-Marie Le Pen of France’s Front National and Joerg Haider of Austria’s Freiheitlichen Partei. They have all been unapologetic denouncers of the continent’s “cultural hybridization” over the last decade.  

Italy’ Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Spanish former President Maria Aznar and German right-winger Edmund Stoiber also won because the vote has confirmed that Europe must recognize the particularity of each nation or be destined for defeat.  

Anti-globalization and anti-capitalist formations also gained from the No vote, among them the European Left, Rifondazione Comunista, part of the French Partie Socialiste, the French Partie Communiste and the Dutch Socialistische Partij.  

So long as the Berlin Wall was in place and the Soviet threat was a reality, countries like France and Germany, which have been constantly at war with each other over the centuries, were compelled to entertain good relationships while under the U.S. nuclear and conventional military umbrella.  

The picture changed radically with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Germany again took the tired and disastrous route of trying to assert its dominance over the rest of Europe. Marco D’Eramo of the daily Il Manifesto writes that in pursuing old expansionistic dreams—in particular toward the regions of Pomerania and Sudeti—Germany initiated a policy of selective recognition of local nationalities in the former Yugoslavia and pushed for a hurried inclusion of former Soviet republics in the EU. The result, says D’Eramo, were the Balkan wars and the return of ethnic cleansing in Europe.  

France and Holland are now ground zero for the future of an EU that has teetered far too long between two opposing visions. On one side is an Anglo-American Europe, centered on economic liberalism, the abolition of all borders and reaching deep into the former Soviet empire and nearly to the shores of the Euphrates River. On the other side is a Europe loyal to social-democratic ideals and anchored on traditional Judeo-Christian values. This Europe has stricter borders and stronger nation states that aspire to play a role on the global economic stage without giving up its cradle-to-grave welfare system for its citizens.  

The two conceptions came to a crashing confrontation in France and Holland, and it is now up to the European parliament, made up of representatives elected directly by the European people, to pick up the pieces and put together a more viable vision of continental integration.  


Paolo Pontoniere is a correspondent for Focus, Italy’s leading monthly.