It was indeed, in the end, a new 1789. But this time, instead of royal heads rolling in revolutionary fervor, the French masses guillotined globalization, deregulation, free markets, Thatcherism imported via Brussels, Polish plumbers, Turkish taxi drivers, the French president, the French government, the political elites, the media – indeed, amid all the carnage in this republican soft revolution, the Europe Union (EU) was no more than collateral damage. To top it all, in this massive ideological debate, voting “non” was supposed to be pro-Europe: not this one under construction, but “another” Europe.
Who profits from this political tsunami – the “mother of Europe” rejecting the proposed European constitution? The constitution was supposed to lead the EU towards more democratic practices, more efficiency and more power to face global competition. With the Dutch electorate all set on Wednesday to complete a one-two punch, one might assume the document, a compromise reached after five years of hard-fought negotiation, is already six feet under.
The EU’s disarray is caviar for its global competitors – the US, China and India. (The euro fell to a seven-month low against the dollar on Tuesday, breaking below key $1.2450 levels.) In the US, from conservatives to neo-conservatives, from “grand chessboard” proponents to preemptive war cheerleaders, all in favor of divide and rule are delighted. Especially because the debacle was chiefly the fault of French President Jacques Chirac (aka “Europe’s dinosaur”). As a careless political opportunist, Chirac never bothered to take the time to explain to French voters what the EU’s future was all about. Thus he may have squandered the vision of the EU as a serious counterweight to the US – just when President George W Bush was learning how to pronounce the words “European Union”.
A romantic reading of this event would reveal the French as gallant warriors showing “another EU is possible” to 450 million fellow Europeans. More realistically, as a newspaper from Alsace put it, “For a long time, the EU will be reduced to a free market zone, to the great satisfaction of the US, the UK and the new members from Eastern Europe.” Not to mention Iran, now facing the EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain) nuclear negotiations conducted by a French-fried Chirac, a Gerhard Schroeder fighting for his political life and an embattled Tony Blair. There was a time, in the late 1990s, when Blair could look himself in the mirror as the model leader for the future EU. Not after Iraq.
La vie en rose
The French tsunami has been widely interpreted as a battle between the nation-state and globalization. It’s not that simple. Many workers from China or India – not to mention the US – would give an arm and a leg to enjoy la vie en rose: only 35 hours of work every week, six weeks of holidays every year, strong unions which call a nationwide strike at a minute’s notice, a fabulous health system, abundant childcare, a very generous welfare system, subsidies for privileged sectors of the economy – not to mention that unlimited supply of sublime bottles of wine and 365 different types of cheese.
There’s a price to pay for all this – other than high taxes: the French alternative translates into a 10% unemployment rate (25% among young people), slow economic growth, and a decline in purchasing power (largely because of the strong euro pushing up prices). But huge swathes essentially voted “non” because they can’t conceive losing so many of their privileges. The bottom line is that the Anglo-Saxon “liberalizing” model is a bonanza for a very limited class of already wealthy, basically white, Western men, but not exactly adjusted to increase social justice around the world. Any other country in the same situation as France would also be largely inclined to be against a document that allegedly threatens their egalitarian social model.
Some statistics put it in perspective. According to a specially-developed French computer program, the word “bank” shows up 176 times in the constitution’s text; “market” 78 times; “competition” 174 times; and “social progress” only three times. “Fraternity” – a concept embedded in the soul of France – is not even mentioned. The “non” vote reveals textbook class struggle: blue-collar workers (more than 80% “non”) against pale bureaucrats in navy-blue suits (“oui’). Paris (66%) and other cosmopolitan cities – Lyon, Strasbourg (home of the European parliament), Marseilles, Toulouse (home of Airbus) – voted overwhelmingly “oui”.
But the mass rejection also reveals an uneasy coalition of Stalinists, Trotskytes, neo-fascists, protectionist farmers and young anti-globalization activists. 52% of the nation stressed the current, troubled “economic and social situation” as the main reason for voting “non”. This victory of the extremes – right and left alike – could not but leave people like former Socialist minister Jack Lang (a moderate) appalled. Lang said that the “great European project has to be led in France by the left, based on the PS [the French Socialist Party]. Now that base has exploded.
It ain’t over until…
On a pedestrian level, the 25-member EU can still walk, thanks to the universally-despised Treaty of Nice, approved in December 2000. Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, the current EU president, is already on full damage control mode: he pledged to do everything to keep the constitution on life support at the next, crucial Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels on June 16. Some more anarchic souls even consider the “non” as a blessing in disguise: “The euro will fall, relaunching the economy in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands”, says an European Commission diplomat. Another one insists, “The crisis is in France. Not here in Brussels. We hit a stumbling block. But the political integration goes on.”
In fact, the night of the long knives may last for months. If France has a lot of soul-searching to do in terms of economic modernization, Britain and Poland for their part cannot offer lessons in social justice. There’s no easy path to reconciliation on the horizon. Blair – not to mention the Poles and the Danes – is already laying the groundwork to escape the responsibility of holding his own referendum. A “non” to the EU in France has nothing to do with a “no” in Britain” and not much with a “nee” in the Netherlands. But amid all the gloom, some EU diplomats are trying to put on the bravest of faces – insisting that one of the key attributes of the EU is good crisis management.
Feverish speculation aside, there is indeed a plan B in Brussels – as EU diplomats told Asia Times Online. It consists in assuring a maximum of “yes” supporters by November 2006: nine EU countries have already said so – including key members Spain (by referendum) and Germany (parliamentary decision). The most pressing problem is preventing Blair from calling off the British referendum. Thus by the end of next year, the EU may play out declaration 30 of the annex to the constitution, according to which if four-fifths have ratified or one or more members had found “difficulties” on the way, the matter goes to the European Council. So it’s absolutely imperative that among the EU-25 there are no more than five “non” votes.
A “return of the living dead” scenario may be on the horizon. If three big countries vote “no” – France, Britain and Poland, for instance – the constitution is politically dead, but parts of it can be resurrected. The EU-25 just have to select the consensual parts and introduce them by agreement or by a one-page treaty signed by all parliaments. This means Europe proceeding at different speeds – but with one crucial change: the Franco-German couple may not be in the driving seat anymore.
So it’s essentially back to square one: national governments having to solve the EU mess. There may be no constitution in 2006, but at least European leaders may reserve themselves the right – unanimously, of course – to adopt some provisions. This is the heart of plan B. They may also decide to appoint – for two-and-a-half years – a president of the European Council in charge of fast-forwarding political integration.
Juncker is a serious candidate. They may also appoint Javier Solana as the EU’s minister of Foreign Affairs – the EU’s global face, something that Solana already incarnates. They don’t need a referendum for this, only an agreement between the European Council, the European Commission and the European parliament. And speaking of saving face, especially in this, the EU’s darkest hour: at least when Bush or Chinese President Hu Jintao want to call the EU in 2006, all they have to do is dial Solana’s number.