Anthony Coughlan of the National Platform EU Research and Information Centre explains the implications of the French people's rejection of the EU constitution
THE FRENCH people's rejection of the proposed EU constitution is a blow in favour of democracy in France and and the whole of Europe.It should open the way to a saner, more rational way of organising our continent.
The reason is that the new EU treaty was an attempt to give the constitutional form of a supranational federal state to the 25 countries of the present EU.
One can only be a citizen of a state. This constitution aimed to make us real citizens of a real EU federation for the first time, such that we would owe this new entity thereafter the prime duty of citizenship, namely, our obedience and loyalty. To attempt to make the citizens of 25 to 30 countries with their different languages and traditions into real citizens of one country called Europe, when there is no such thing as a single European people except statistically, has never been realistic.
Yet to create such a European federation has been the central aim of the European Movement since Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman in the 1950s.
Each successive European treaty - Rome 1957, the Single European Act 1987, Maastricht 1992, Amsterdam 1998, Nice 2003 - has been "sold" to citizens as being necessary for jobs and growth, but has been politically designed to lead to ever closer integration, a shift of ever more power from nation states to the supranational Brussels institutions, and a continual erosion of the national democracy and political independence of the different peoples of Europe's many countries. This has been "the great deception" of the EU integration project.
This process was meant to culminate in this EU constitution, which would have clamped a rigid politico-economic straitjacket on 25 or more different countries. As people found out more about it, and they had a thorough debate on it in France, they have revolted at its implications.
That the French people who have been at the heart of the EU integration process for so long should reject it in this way is a shattering blow to the project, from which it is unlikely to recover. France's vote will surely come to be seen as an historical watershed.
One long-term effect is likely to be on the euro. A central aim of the supranational federation envisaged by the EU constitution was to provide a political counterpart for a single European currency. What we have at present is 12 countries, 12 governments, 12 budgets and 12 tax policies, all using the same euro. Yet without one state behind it, the euro cannot survive in the long run.
Countries need maximum flexibility, not rigidity, in the modern world. The euro has been a political project from the beginning, aimed at reconciling France to German reunification, but using economic means quite inappropriate for this purpose.
Germany and France's high unemployment rate is significantly due to the euro. The euro imposes a one-size-fits-all interest rate policy on quite different economies, and an inflexible exchange rate that prevents states restoring their competitiveness by changing their currency's value.
France's death-blow to the constitution means an EU federation is now unlikely to come into being as a political counterpart to the euro.
It is untrue to say that there is some legal obligation on the Netherlands or any other EU country to proceed with ratifying the EU constitution, despite France's rejection. There is no such obligation. Where could it come from? There is a political 'Declaration' annexed to the "Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe" which says that if four-fifths of states do not ratify it, they will meet to discuss what to do.
This is not the same as an obligation on states to proceed with ratification either individually or collectively if one country says No. The decision of Ireland or other EU states to proceed with ratification as if a French or Dutch No could be reversed or over-ruled at a later date, would be a political matter, but not a legal imperative.
The political rationale for such a course would be that the Irish government envisaged engaging in an act of collective pressure and bullying vis-a-vis France, similar to what Irish citizens had to put up with when they voted No to Nice in 2001. The French however are likely to prove less malleable than we were.
The two possible future for our European continent are either integration into a supranational state federation or cooperation among states on the basis of the balance of power and influence between them.
The balance of power is fine as long as it stays balanced, which is the art of statecraft. Europe of the balance of power is now reasserting itself again. That great political realist, France's Charles De Gaulle, who once said that "Europe is a Europe of the nations and the states or it is nothing", would not have been surprised.
Anthony Coughlan is senior lecturer emeritus in social policy at Trinity College Dublin, secretary of The National Platform EU Research and Information Centre, and the Dublin correspondent of the Irish Democrat. The above article was originally published in the Irish Times.
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Copyright © 2005 Anthony Coughlan