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The EU in Crisis (June 2, 2005)

The rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters was a signal that European leaders had to take seriously. In this article, Martin Klingst reviews the reasons for the “no” vote and calls on EU politicians to clearly explain the tasks and limits of European policies to Europe’s citizens in order to win them back over to “Project Europe.”

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He Who Does Not Heed the People
It Would be a Grave Mistake to Downplay the ‘no’ to the European Constitution

First the good news: the French non and the anticipated Dutch nee (the final outcome of their vote was still unclear when this went to press) to the constitutional treaty will not destroy the EU. The idea of Europe is too important for that to happen. The Union is too strong economically, too stable politically, and, despite its enormous problems, too attractive to the world for that to happen. From Ukraine to Turkey and on to Morocco, all EU neighbor states that strive for peace, freedom, democracy, and prosperity want to join the Union. Also, the opponents of the constitution do not form a united front; only a minority strictly rejects the EU, while the vast majority is battling for the Union – but for a more social-minded, slenderer, and more easy-going version than the present one.

But now the bad (and, at the moment, more pressing) news: the non and the nee are an expression of a profound crisis in Europe, and they reflect a basic sentiment that extends far beyond the borders of France and Holland. Anyone who claims the opposite and who still thinks that this is only a matter of the people of two countries punishing their national governments is gravely deceiving himself and everyone else too. The “no” of the two founding nations [of the European Economic Community], who previously had the reputation of being irreproachable, downright eager-beaver super-Europeans, is also being directed at the EU – especially the route that the European Union has taken over the past few years.

It is a wildly chaotic muddle of voices and moods. Things are going too fast and too far – or not far enough – for most French and Dutch citizens: the enlargement of the EU, the liberalization of the economy, the Brussels superstructure, the curtailing of national social standards and basic rights. If the Germans were asked directly, they too would shout “halt.” Right now, there is fierce fighting about the right path for Europe – just at a time when the heads of state who hold sway in Europe are in decline: Gerhard Schröder is almost down for the count, Jacques Chirac is staggering, Tony Blair is being counted out, and Silvio Berlusconi is up against the ropes.

It would be fatal if the EU heads of government simply continued with business as usual. Luxemburg’s prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker and France’s ex-president Giscard d’Estaing are already recommending that French voters be allowed to vote again until the result comes out right. And this sentence is also an expression of the arrogance of power: “There is no alternative to the present path!” But that would mean the end of all politics – why should people even vote at all? If the government heads want to save the European Union they have to stop and take a deep breath, review things, and make some readjustments – and do everything possible to win the citizens over to the EU.

Despite all the colorful advertisements, fairs, and charm offensives in Brussels, the European Union remains foreign and even a bit threatening to the people. The French sociologist Alain Touraine, an ardent supporter of the European Union, was correct when he said: “In actuality, the conflict between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is primarily a conflict between top and bottom.” Those “at the top” have lost their footing. What is tragic is that those “at the bottom” are taking their displeasure out on the constitution, which is precisely what could finally bring “Spaceship EU” back down to earth. Who knows, there might have been a different outcome if all European countries had voted on the same day. Maybe then there would at least have been a whiff of a sense of unity in Europe for once.

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