Commentary Magazine

Europe's "No"

On February 20 of this year, voters in Spain ratified the European Constitutional Treaty or European Constitution, as it is usually referred to. As the world knows by now, this is the document intended to supersede every previous all-European treaty and pact and to provide the European Union (EU) with a unified legal and political framework. Most Spanish political parties, including the ruling Socialist party and the main opposition party, had campaigned for a yes vote, which won by a resounding 75 percent. The turnout, however, was very low: 42 percent of registered voters.

At the time, this fact was largely ignored. According to the conventional wisdom among both pundits and politicians, February's Spanish referendum would set the pace for the other EU countries that had similarly opted to hold a popular referendum on the constitution rather than deciding the matter in parliament. These were France (where the vote was to be held on May 29), the Netherlands (June 1), Luxemburg (July 10), Poland (September 25), Denmark (September 27), Portugal (October), Ireland (by the end of the year), the United Kingdom (spring 2006), and the Czech Republic (June 2006). Each would surely vote yes, perhaps not overwhelmingly but by a workable majority. As for the fifteen countries that had opted for ratification by parliament, the outcome seemed no less predictable: almost everywhere, Europhiles outnumbered Euroskeptics.

In short, there would be no repetition of the discomfiture that had marked the passage of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. In France, that founding document of today's European economic and monetary union barely squeaked through by a margin of less than 1 percent, in Denmark it was rejected twice, and in Ireland it failed once before being finally approved.

The “Spanish effect” lasted for all of one month. On March 18, the French left-of-center tabloid Le Parisien published a poll indicating that French opposition to the draft constitution, which had hitherto lagged at 35 percent in January and 41 percent in early March, had suddenly risen to 51 percent. In a second poll, published three days later by the conservative daily Le Figaro, the no's were up to 52 percent. The political class panicked, and not only in France.

The rise of a strong negative sentiment came as a blow to every mainstream French body. After all, the ruling conservative party (UMP) of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy supported the constitution almost to a man; so did France's Christian-Democratic party (UDF) led by François Bayrou. On the Left, François Hollande's Socialists were solidly for the constitution as well. True, Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist prime minister and finance minister, had challenged the mainstream Left consensus, but his position had been defeated in a party referendum the previous December.

Now, however, the French situation was no longer looking like a carbon copy of Spain but was taking on an altogether different complexion. Unlike their Spanish neighbors, the French were apparently not prepared to abide by the establishment's summons. But neither were they about to stay home. Instead, they seemed to be casting their lot either with the Fabius wing of the Socialist party or, more ominously, with a congeries of right-wing and left-wing radicals who had campaigned against the constitution since the beginning. Those included Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, Philippe de Villiers's Mouvement pour la France, the Communists, the Trotskyites, and the rank and file of the Greens.

In theory, the referendum on Europe had nothing to do with domestic politics. In practice, as everyone understood, things were different. A strong no would be taken as a demand for deep changes at home, if not as a species of popular revolt. Three years earlier, a presidential race had already revealed the dysfunctional aspect of French democracy: in the first balloting, Chirac, the outgoing president, and Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, had fared so poorly as to allow Le Pen, an unreconstructed neofascist, to come in second and thus win the chance to face off against Chirac in the next round.

Although Chirac won that round resoundingly, and in the ensuing parliamentary election secured an absolute majority in the National Assembly, both he and the political establishment had “seen the wolf,” as the French say. Its fangs were visible not only in the specter of a Le Pen resurgence but in the staggering 47 percent of the overall vote that had been rung up by various other radical candidates, from Right to Left. The European referendum was now threatening to bring the wolf back on stage.

The implications for Europe at large were no less far-reaching. What if, for instance, the Dutch were also to say no when they cast their ballots just three days after the French? The Netherlands had been one of the six nations involved in the original Treaty of Rome, which established the European Union in 1957, and had maintained a clean Europhile record ever since. Now, opposition to the constitutional draft was mounting there, too. If both France and the Netherlands were to repudiate their pasts, what would the other countries do? Restiveness over the new treaty was already noticeable in Denmark and Poland, and was perceptible even in Sweden, which had opted for the presumably safer route of parliamentary ratification.


Alarmed as they were, the French rushed into almost every trap lying in wait for them. The government, instead of distancing itself as much as possible from the outcome of the vote, did just the opposite. Chirac and his prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, declared dramatically that a no vote would be a national disaster, in effect threatening the citizenry with a spanking if it failed to deliver the right answer. As a result, anti-constitutional sentiment, instead of receding, consolidated all over the country.

Then there was the Bolkestein affair. In 2004, Frits Bolkestein, a Dutchman then serving as the EU's market commissioner, had issued a directive effectively deregulating the service sector by enabling European companies to operate anywhere in the EU according to the laws of their country of registration. This was perfectly consistent with the longstanding EU commitment to a single, highly competitive European market, and in formulating the regulation Bolkestein was simply complying with relevant decisions of the EU's governing bodies. But implementation would mean that plumbers or mechanics or masons or truckers from, say, Poland or Slovakia would henceforth be allowed to work in countries like France or Germany for the same low wages and low benefits they were earning at home, thus undermining the high-wage, high-benefit economies of their host countries.

Astonishingly, very few people in France had given a thought to this matter until Philippe de Villiers, one of the EU's most implacable critics, raised a stir by warning that adopting the constitution would accelerate Europe's Bolkesteinisation (a coinage darkly evocative of both Bolshevism and Frankenstein). Chirac had no choice but to maintain, against all evidence, that his government actually opposed the Bolkestein directive and would ask the Commission to rescind it. This highly unconvincing statement merely reinforced the growing sentiment to vote no.

Then Chirac decided, rather bravely, to speak directly on television with French youth. The president of France is a very powerful man, whose extensive influence over the media allows him to set the terms of any such discussion. For some reason, however, nothing was done to script the event, and the show, airing on April 14, was a debacle. The young audience, including many Muslims of North African background, evinced no respect whatsoever either for the man or for his office, and the normally unflappable Chirac was at a loss to respond to them. Polls the following day registered still more gains in the no column.

Nor was that the end of the government's embarrassments. Among those campaigning for a yes vote was Simone Veil, an icon of French political correctness. A former Auschwitz inmate, she had served as a French minister of health before being elected in 1979 to the presidency of the European Parliament. Veil is also a member of France's constitutional court. But instead of asking her to resign before taking part in a political campaign, the court insouciantly granted her an “exceptional leave” for the duration. Robert Badinter, a former president of the court, a former Socialist minister of justice, a staunch supporter of the constitution—and himself the son of a Holocaust victim—was shocked at this flouting of judicial ethics, and he let his shock be known. Chirac's reported reply—“Why be overly legalistic?”—infuriated yet another segment of public opinion: conservatives otherwise prepared to support the constitution as a bulwark of the rule of law.

By the beginning of May, two more iconic figures—Jospin, a former Socialist prime minister, and Jacques Delors, a socialist and former chairman of the European Commission—had joined the fight for the constitution. They concentrated their attack on Fabius and other left-wing Euroskeptics in whose eyes the new constitution, like the entire European project, was far too “liberal”—a term that in French parlance means not Left or progressive but rather conservative and free-market-oriented.

On the contrary, argued Jospin and Delors, the constitution expressed the social-democratic traditions of postwar Europe, and its main purpose was to help build up the Continent as an alternative superpower, thereby preventing a surrender to American-style “globalization.” Some conservatives, including Raffarin, likewise resorted to this brand of “continental” rhetoric, complete with anti-American or even anti-Chinese innuendo.

For a few days, the new approach seemed to be working: the yeses rose a bit and even briefly overtook the no's. Among the contributing factors was the worry of some French conservatives that a rejection of the constitution would redound to the fortunes of the extreme Left; others shrank from allying themselves simultaneously with the extreme Left and Le Pen. Nevertheless, two weeks before the referendum, the no's were leading again by a margin of 3 or 4 points, and there was reason to believe that most people had already made up their minds. In Holland, too, a no was seeming likely, with polls in early May showing opposition to the constitution having risen from April's 53 percent to a solid 60 percent.

On May 29 and June 1, the fears of the Europhiles were realized. France rejected the draft constitution by 55 to 45 percent, Holland by 62 to 38 percent. Five days later, Britain indefinitely suspended its own scheduled referendum.


It is important to distinguish between opposition to the European Constitution and opposition to the EU. The two are connected, but they are not quite the same.

From the start, the overriding reason for the constitution's unpopularity was its sheer clumsiness. Every French citizen awoke one morning to find in his mailbox a 191-page booklet containing, in fine print, the projected Constitutional Treaty itself (87 pages), protocols and annexes (72 pages), and a final act (23 pages). Why three separate texts were needed, and how they related to each other—did the constitution stand by itself, or was its approval conditional on approval of the others?—was a deep puzzle.

Wading through the documents was an even more troubling experience—worse than a mortgage agreement, my wife remarked. Only a political scientist or lawyer already steeped in the relevant issues could have been expected to follow the intricacies of the no fewer than 448 constitutional articles and to extract from this morass what it all really meant for the nations of Europe, let alone for the average citizen. No wonder so many commentaries and supercommentaries emerged in the months before the referendum, some of them even becoming best-sellers.

Add to this the peculiarity of the arrangements being proposed. On the surface, the Constitutional Treaty looked like the founding document of a regular nation-state, with all the familiar features of such an entity: a flag, a single currency, an anthem, a motto, a president, a foreign secretary, a council of ministers, a court of justice, a central bank, an audit bureau, a parliament, scores of committees, even a bill of rights. Yet there were also constant reminders of the fact that the European Union is not, or not yet, a super-state at all, and that the nations involved are still sovereign powers with autonomous rights in such crucial areas as national defense, diplomacy, taxation, UN membership, and even currency. (Although the euro is “the currency of the Union,” every member has the right to retain its own national currency.) Mean-while, the European Commission is still there, hanging in the air or, better, suspended over the heads of the European people, an emanation neither of them nor of their states but with considerable power and sway over both.

“Are we pregnant, or not?” asked my wife very reasonably. Was the constitution that of a federation, a confederacy, a league, a regional United Nations, a reconstituted Holy Roman Empire? How could a treaty among sovereign nation-states be constitutional without shredding the sovereignty of the independent contracting states?

More often than not, in the face of such contradictions, European commentators simply gave up. Bastien François, a professor of political science at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris (arguably the best law school in the realm), maintained in a small book published in April that since the “European polity” was something entirely new, it could not be expected to conform to the established standards of public law:

Europe is neither a confederacy nor a federation. . . . In fact, a new name should have been devised. . . . It is being built with existing legal instruments, but with a twist. As compared with the traditional architecture of democratic institutions, there is something a bit baroque about it.

Baroque, indeed. Other commentators, including a number of American constitutional scholars, eschewed such sophistries and pronounced the projected European Constitution neither complex nor innovative but simply poorly designed. This, for example, was the early assessment of Jack Rakove, a Stanford professor of history who wrote in 2003 that the European Constitution reminded him not so much of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 as of the ill-fated Articles of Confederation four years earlier. Interestingly, François too thought the European Constitution would not last: he gave it no more than 30 years of political life.

The unattractiveness of the constitution had to do not only with its impenetrability and seeming unworkability but with the idiom in which it was couched. It is an open question whether the European Union, which maintains 24 official languages and is in the business of translating every single document every single day, is capable of composing a unified and inspiring founding act. No less questionable is whether contemporary Europeans, even more crippled by political correctness than contemporary Americans, have the power to express themselves in sober and confident tones like the members of the Philadelphia Convention or of the French National Assembly of 1789. And still another question is whether the European political class can even remember the great models of Western public rhetoric or their sources in the Bible and the Greek and Latin classics.1

What is beyond doubt is that the constitution lacked gravitas—or, rather, that every attempt at gravitas ended in the ridiculous. Here, for instance, is the preamble, wherein the assorted sovereigns explain why they are promulgating a Constitutional Treaty:

His Majesty the King of the Belgians, the President of the Czech Republic, Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark [etc., etc., etc.], drawing their inspiration from the cultural, religious, and humanistic heritages of Europe, the source out of which such universal values as the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person have developed, as well as freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law, convinced that Europe, standing reunited in the wake of painful experiences, now intends to move forward on the path of civilization, progress, and prosperity, in the best interest of all its inhabitants, including the weakest and the most destitute, that she intends to remain a continent open to culture, knowledge, and social progress, and that she wishes to deepen the democratic and transparent character of public life and work for peace, justice, and solidarity all over the world. . . .

And so forth, droningly onward. As for the second part of the constitution, known as the Charter of Fundamental Rights, it is, in Rakove's phrase, “a mere shopping list of social benefits,” reenacting with almost obsessive fidelity previous European conventions and charters on human and civil rights. Making sure to ban the death penalty once and for all, it upholds the need to fight any kind of discrimination, including on the basis of “sexual orientation,” to recognize and respect “the right of senior citizens to lead a decent and independent life and to take part in social and cultural life,” and to do all this and much more while avoiding, in one wonderfully elastic injunction, “exorbitant public deficits.”


Still, it is not really the constitution itself that the French and the Dutch were bent on rejecting. Nor was it even the concept of European unity. Rather, it was the impact on their lives, direct and indirect, of more than a decade of actual EU governance under the Maastricht regime. In order to understand this, one has to go back beyond even Maastricht, to the beginning.

Europe as we know it was born right after World War II. To be sure, there had been a strong feeling for centuries that all European states and nations shared common roots, a common culture, and common interests. By 1945, however, this vague feeling had taken on new significance. No European nation was going to be able to recover on its own from the devastation of the war, or to survive on its own.

The British were still something of an exception to the rule, able to entertain at least for a while the illusion of a renovated empire, now recast as a Commonwealth of Nations, and to rely on their “special relationship” with the United States. By contrast, the continental countries knew they had no choice but to work together. Even American aid under the Marshall Plan would be ineffective without close cooperation among neighbors, which alone could lead not only to economic revival but to the long-sought dream of peaceful relations at last.

Winston Churchill, who in the postwar years was more inclined than most Englishmen to consider an all-European option, encapsulated the general feeling in a speech he delivered in Zurich in 1946:

I wish to speak to you today about the tragedy of Europe, this noble continent . . . the home of all the great parent races of the Western world, the foundation of Christian faith and Christian ethics. It is the origin of most of the culture, arts, philosophy, and science both of ancient and modern times. . . . If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to the happiness, the prosperity, and the glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy.


The continent, however, included Germany. It was one thing, and a fairly easy thing, for the three Low Countries to coalesce into a single economic unit to be known as Benelux. The Nordic nations, too, quite naturally set up various kinds of cooperative institutions. Along similar lines, some observers, including the French philosopher Alexandre Kojève, briefly hoped to bring together the Latin countries: France and Italy first, then a post-Franco Spain and a post-Salazar Portugal. But Germany, even in the truncated form of the Federal Republic that had been carved out of the three Western occupation zones, was still the most populous country in Europe and its largest industrial base. Europe without West Germany would not work; West Germany without Europe might fail.

There was, in those years, not only the sinister prospect of a revived Nazi movement but the well-founded fear that Communism, already entrenched in the so-called German Democratic Republic, might engulf the whole of the former Reich. Here again, Churchill was the first to draw the logical conclusion, calling for “something which will astonish you . . . a kind of United States of Europe . . . based on a partnership between France and Germany.”

The trouble was that the Germans were neither loved nor trusted. They had been the aggressors in the recent war. They had committed unspeakable acts of barbarity against civilians. Their ultimate downfall was regarded as well and truly deserved. Making the prospect of union even more troubling was the fact that, throughout the war, Nazi propaganda had incessantly proclaimed the virtues of European unity and cooperation—under Nazi rule, of course. Although the Federal Republic was a different animal, a regime run by people who had opposed Hitler, still, resentment elsewhere in Europe was enormous, and the Communist parties knew how to harness it for their own aims.

How, then, were the Germans to be brought into a new Europe as full partners? At the end of the day, the Europeans acted schizophrenically. The rational hemisphere of their brains told them that Germany should be included. The emotional hemisphere rejected the possibility. The only points of (reluctant) compromise lay in the area of economic cooperation and in the more nebulous arena of culture, ethics, and human rights. Any further coordination—as for instance in an integrated European defense system under the aegis of NATO—was out of the question.

The way forward, then, was to circumvent politics by focusing on economics. This is what Jean Monnet, the planning commissioner of postwar France and a staunch advocate of a “United States of Europe,” had in mind when, along with his fellow Catholics Konrad Adenauer of West Germany, Robert Schumann of France, and Acide de Gasperi of Italy, he drafted the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Europe was to be organized, first and foremost, as a common market. This, properly administered over the course of one or two decades, would enable it to achieve American levels of productivity. Then—and only then—would political and social integration follow. The more that Europeans worked together and prospered together, the more they would learn to live together.


Monnet's strategy worked beautifully. In no small measure, this was thanks to the postwar Pax Americana and the global economic growth that marked the period from the 1950's through the early 1970's—the “thirty glorious years,” as the French economist Jean Fourastié would call them in retrospect. The dollar served as a de-facto world currency. American-dominated organizations, from the OECD to the World Bank, from the IMF to GATT, provided for macroeconomic stability. Energy was cheap. Postwar reconstruction, the baby boom, and the emergence or consolidation of a full-blown consumer economy boosted productivity. In terms of national defense, the European countries and Japan had a free ride, being neither inclined nor permitted to resume their war-making. As for countering the threat of Soviet nuclear weapons, that too was almost entirely the Americans' business. Although things turned sour in the 1970's, in the wake of the OPEC-induced oil crisis and the Vietnam war, by 1980, under Ronald Reagan, America had once again taken the economic and strategic lead, and the momentum continued during the 90's.

This is not to say that the Common Market—or the European Community, as it was soon to be called, or the European Union as it was renamed by the Maastricht Treaty, or just plain Europe, as most people called it—was less than a success story in its own right. What Monnet had had in mind was not just a free-trade zone but an elaborate system of mutual dependence whereby the more affluent countries or regions would help the poorer to adapt to a modern economy and develop their own potential. Indeed, the economic community or union—first the six founding nations of France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries, then the newcomers (Britain, Ireland, and Denmark in 1972, Greece, Spain, and Portugal a bit later)—gradually assumed a more unified look.

After 1963, all of European agriculture was overhauled by the central planners. Many farmers were induced to leave the land, while those who remained were helped to increase their yield dramatically and to sell their goods everywhere within the European community. Places like England, where farming had almost disappeared in the early 20th century, became productive again.

Europe's achievement as a single economic entity was impressive enough to silence its critics wherever they were to be found. Countries like Sweden, Finland, and Austria, which had initially stayed out, were now eager to join. So, in time, were Mediterranean outposts like Malta and Cyprus and the former Communist-ruled nations of Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia. By the turn of the millennium, Gaullist France, despite the usual invocations of its independence and national grandeur, had become as supportive of the EU as the more genuinely federalist Netherlands or Germany. Some French political leaders were extending Raffarin's vision of a “continental European bloc” to include not just Turkey or Ukraine but even the former French colonies of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in North Africa.


But there is a cloud to every silver lining, and a nemesis to every success story. The problem of Europe was that Monnet's twist—economics first—led to a bizarre, quasi-political arrangement. The European Commission, in charge of setting wages and prices and much else besides, grew as powerful as, and in some respects more powerful than, the constituent nation-states. At the same time, no offsetting center of democratic power—either a European parliament with teeth, or an elected European president—emerged.

At first, this too seemed to be in everybody's interest. Under a non-democratic regime, the various nation-states, especially the three great powers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, could more easily protect themselves and their own establishments. Big business and NGO's also found it easier to lobby the EU's unelected experts and civil servants than a democratically elected parliament or executive. Especially when it came to unpopular reforms, like liberalizing the economy or unraveling some of the more extreme manifestations of the welfare state, it was safer for a government to be seen as complying with European Union directives than as acting on its own initiative.

The average European citizen was not fooled, however. Resistance in the early 1990's to the Maastricht Treaty was one sign of mistrust and mounting resentment. Another, in the late 1990's, was the widespread rejection in many important EU countries of the projected conversion to a single currency: by 1997, 79 percent of Germans, 76 percent of British, and 66 percent of French were insisting on a referendum on this issue, presumably in order to have the chance to reject it. As for the largely ornamental European Parliament that sits in Strasbourg, since the mid-1990's nobody in Europe (the Italians excepted) has ever cared enough even to vote in its elections. Last year, turnout in France and Germany was a measly 33 percent, Sweden and the UK hovered below 30 percent, and even Poland, where pro-European enthusiasm runs high, could muster only a dismal 21 percent.


In sum, what is obvious is that this year's rebellion against the European Constitution signifies still another attempt, if the most serious so far, to “repatriate” the European Union, and return it to the European people for whose benefit it was presumably devised. For what is democracy about, after all? On a minimalistic, Churchillian view—that it is a more effective system, in practical terms, than any other—democracy functions much like the free market. Despite the apparent chaos of unending debate and frequent elections, more often than not a hidden hand is at work, leading to the right option or at least to the less damaging one.

Take the euro, for instance—an example par excellence of an option imposed from above. In those countries that converted to it, the euro has been a prescription for zero growth, cutting the average citizen's purchasing power by anywhere from one-fifth to a half, depending on whose estimates one uses. By contrast, countries that successfully resisted the euro, like Britain and Sweden, are in good shape. In a fully democratic environment, the hidden hand would long since have stopped the single European currency, or would certainly have radically revised the elaborate and self-defeating regulations sustaining it. In the non-democratic environment of the EU, there has been no recourse.

In order to function, however, democracy must rest on simple, transparent rules—and on popular acceptance of them. The UK has no written constitution, yet the rules—first-past-the-post elections, a sovereign parliament, judicial independence—are well known and deeply rooted in the country's traditions. The U.S. Constitution of 1787 is short, lucid, reassuringly specific and yet usefully vague. The same is true of the well-balanced German Federal Constitution of 1949 and even, despite its many shortcomings, of de Gaulle's French Constitution of 1958. So far, although it boasts 80,000 pages of law, Europe lacks any such widely recognized statement of its purposes, let alone what James Madison elegantly described as “that share of prejudice in its favor which is a salutary aid to the most rational government.” The Constitutional Treaty is no improvement.

In the meantime, looming in the background are all of Europe's other crushing problems, from the implosion of its birth rates to the Islamist threat to the stranglehold of sclerotic welfare systems to an entrenched and reflexive anti-Americanism. The French and Dutch votes, together with Britain's postponement of its referendum, have provided a desperately needed opportunity for review. It remains to be seen whether this opportunity can be seized and enlarged upon, whether Europe can walk itself back from its massive, self-inflicted harm toward a federation of sovereign democratic states and continent-wide economic growth. The prospects can hardly be said to be bright.

June 7, 2005



1 For the struggle over including any reference in the Constitution to the religious and specifically the Christian heritage of Europe, see, in COMMENTARY, “The Cathedral and the Cube” by George Weigel, June 2004.


About the Author

Michel Gurfinkiel is the president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Paris. His article, “Is Turkey Lost?,” appeared in the March COMMENTARY.

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