The negative vote in France tells us some things, but fails to tell us others we are curious to know.
Most sharply, it flashes out at us the difference between parliamentary approval and popular approval. All the voting, up until Sunday’s, had been by parliaments, except for Spain. Scheduled for Wednesday, June 1, is a second referendum vote (in the Netherlands). Other votes (with the exception of Malta’s) are to be popular votes. The big story of course is that if the Dutch follow the French, there isn’t much point in going any further, because the whole idea of a European constitution will have crashed.
What’s going on?
We are told that the elite and the non-elite–the commoners–are differently inclined. In France, this was so. There are always the exceptions, but the elite in France voted yes on the constitution that sophisticated craftsmen, under the direction of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, labored over for three years, producing over a hundred pages of laws and regulations per year.
What were they up to?
They wanted a country, called Europe. They wanted, after six centuries of them, to avoid internecine wars. To that end, six nations brought forth a precursor to the European Union in 1951 which spawned the European Economic Community in 1957, which brought on the European Union of 1992. By now, “Europe” meant 25 countries, 26 assuming the accession of Turkey in coming years. The first goal was a reduction in tariff barriers. This happened, and proved successful, creating an inertia that pointed to further relinquishments of national power, comparable to the American experience as member states of the Union gave over power to the federal government.
The vision has been pretty heady. Europe would be the largest economic unit in the world, a union of the nations that provided the cultural, economic, military, and artistic overhead of the western world up until the United States achieved parity, and then supremacy. There would be problems, it was acknowledged in the thousand forums at which these matters were discussed. But these problems would be negotiated.
What haunted the vision, in recent years, were two demographic ice floes. The first, the diminution of the birthrate in native populations; the second, the perception that genuine freedom had to include the freedom to migrate. If simultaneously (to take only a single example), Swedes diminish in numbers by their negative birthrate, and Turks are free to immigrate to Sweden, the cultural contours of existing society will be gradually reshaped.
Such developments the elite can, with a measure of calm, live with, but they generate apprehension in others, men and women who have looked to their governments to protect their special interests. We know that 70 percent of French farmers voted no on the new constitution. Now, French farmers are the most coddled economic tribe in the entire world, so why should they invite any change in the laws they live under? Public and blue collar workers, and of course the unemployed, voted no on the constitution. Their leverage on the immediate future of France, which is the future they are concerned with, depends on exertions within a political framework they are familiar with. If the eggheads in Paris want a great visionary constitution in the place of what they have got now, let them go for it, but don’t let them hallucinate that this has the backing of the French working man.
The shock of the May 29 vote will affect politics everywhere. Poor Tony Blair is all but speechless trying to handle it. On the one hand, he has been a leader in encouraging the European idea. But a lurking skepticism among the Brits brought him several years ago to pledge that he would not take Great Britain into Europe without a plebiscite. It was expected that by the time a vote became relevant, the advantages of Europe would overwhelm parochial concerns.
Well, although Mr. Blair had thought the British plebiscite could be safely scheduled for spring 2006, he faces now the real possibility that by spring 2006, the whole idea of the united Europe will have given way to the sturdy weeds of tradition and nationalism which indeed have brought wars in the past, but which the French people, for all their exalted talk about an exalted Europe, just don’t want to be without.