As expected the French people rejected the European constitution in yesterday’s referendum. Perhaps a bit unexpected was the margin of victory for the no-side (almost 55% to 45%) and the huge turnout (about 70%). Such a strong rejection should weaken the will to simply carry on and then asking the French for a “yes” a second time.
If the Dutch also vote no, as is expected, such a strategy would be even more remote. But what will happen instead? That is very hard to say. There has been a lot of speculation on the coming collapse of the entire project, especially from yes-campaigners of all flavours, but that strikes me as highly unlikely. The EU will not brake if it does not get this constitution. In the short run it can carry on pretty much as it does now. While the current treaties does make it cumbersome to make decisions, it manages alright today and can continue to do so. The interesting effects of a rejected constitution will be seen in the long run, as the European leaders needs to reconsider. What their conclusions will be is difficult to predict.
The EU project so far has very much been run from the top, with the ambitions coming from statesmen rather than popular demand. That would not neccessarily have been a problem if the traditional ideas of an ever closer union would simply have been proposed from the top – not forced through without winning popular support. Also there’s a growing worry – perhaps in France in particular – about what effects the expansion will have on the economy. Therefore it seems likely that further expansion will be delayed, which is unfortunate for Romania and Bulgaria, and perhaps also for Turkey.
I think it has to be acknowledged how different the ideas of how to take on economical challenges is in different countries, with the British openness and relatively market-friendly sentiments, shared by many of the new memebers, on the one hand and the French interventionist and protectionist philosophy on the other. Of course, one could always hope that even the French (and Italians, and Germans and so on) would see the benefits of deregulation, but it’s not very realistic to assume that this would happen anytime soon.
Perhaps a second attempt at a constitutional treaty could take this into consideration. What it means is that the constitution should stay well clear of trying to dictate any particular policy in this area, leaving it to the leaders of every particular time to deal with the challanges that arises. The same approach would be clever in other areas as well. What is needed is a smoother system for decision-making, which at the same times holds more democratic legitimacy (which can be achieved in many different ways) and makes it easier to demand responsibility. It needs to define in what areas a common policy is preferable regulation of cigarette packet sizes is not such an area…), and then leave all other areas to the member states, while at the same time leaving room to co-operate on those non-EU areas as well if some of the member-states feel that doing so would be to their advantage. It needs defend a strong principle of subsidiarity.
Will this happen? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It’s difficult to say, perhaps the odds are against it. But at the very least the French “non”, and – should it happen – the Dutch “nee”, ought to put focus on the discussion. That’s good.