Why Did the French and Dutch Vote No?

por Christopher Caldwell, 8 de junio de 2005

(Published in Weekly Standard. from the June 13, 2005 issue: Because they were asked, for a change)


When the Russian army chased Napoleon's troops all the way back to Paris in 1814, the occupiers were not just tolerated but welcomed. They were chic. The empress Josephine herself went riding with the young czar. The locals seemed to delight in subjugation, the more undignified, the better. 'We women,' wrote Mme. Chateaubriand, 'would cry 'Off with our heads!' were we to hear our neighbors do so.' The French are funny. They will always stand up against usurpation of their rights and liberties by foreigners--but they do take their time about it.
Last week, their time came. French voters rejected a proposed 'constitutional treaty' for the European Union and sent a shock through the continent. Seventy percent of the country turned out--roughly triple the usual French showing for an E.U. election--after the most heated national debate since the Algerian war. They rejected the treaty by a stunning 10-point margin.
In so doing, they closed the book on a half-century in which France had sought to maintain its dwindling world clout by leading the countries of Europe into a new kind of political union, with its capital in Brussels. 'Never separate the grandeur of France from the building of Europe,' president François Mitterrand had said in the early 1990s, towards the end of his 14 years in office. 'This is our new dimension.' By the turn of the millennium, the influential editor of the Nouvel Observateur, Jacques Julliard, could say that 'today's French patriots are Europeans.' And in 2003, France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, made an international media feast of this new doctrine before it was even fully cooked, telling bemused delegates to the United Nations, that they--and they alone--had the legitimacy to press for democratic change in Iraq.
Having unleashed this gospel on the world, the French have now become the first to declare their apostasy. The consequences were both immediate and far-reaching. The Dutch, who share many of the misgivings about the surrendering of sovereignty that the French do, had a referendum three days later. Their worries had been compounded by two recent episodes of political violence--the assassination of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn in May 2002 and the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist radical in November 2004. The Dutch rejected the constitutional treaty by 62 percent to 38, on a 63 percent turnout. That, too, was roughly triple the country's showing at a typical European election.
The only part of the 485-page constitution that anyone will henceforth need to remember--although it is the part that people all over Brussels are now trying to forget--is Article IV, section 447. That passage stipulates that the constitutional treaty is not valid unless all countries of the E.U. ratify it. There is no putting a brave face on what has happened: The E.U.'s attempt to bind itself constitutionally into an ever closer union has, for the foreseeable future, failed.
This is not without consequences for the United States. Some of them are good ones. Just last month, flush with his success in the recent British parliamentary elections, anti-Iraq war member of parliament George Galloway gloated over the coming reckoning for the friends of the American alliance. 'Most of the commentary that you'll read nowadays,' Galloway told Charlie Rose, 'is about when, not if, Mr. Blair departs the political stage early, and I think Iraq is the main reason for that. Aznar in Spain has already gone. I predict, you know, that Berlusconi in Italy will be the next to go. One by one, these people who committed this, at best, grotesque blunder, are paying a political price for it.'
But now things look different. German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the man who opened the European floodgates to anti-Americanism during his 2002 election campaign, has just called early elections after his Social Democratic party was routed in its stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia for the first time in four decades. Few give him any chance of winning a new term next fall. After investing his all in the constitutional 'Yes' campaign, Jacques Chirac appears to be facing the end of his political career. It is true that he nominated the antiwar standard-bearer Dominique de Villepin as his new prime minister last week. But the embarrassing price for Chirac was that he also nominate his arch-rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, the most pro-American (and most popular) politician in the country, as minister of state. The Villepin choice may dig Chirac deeper into a hole. Only a third of voters approve of the choice, according to a poll taken last week by Ipsos. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they wanted a thoroughgoing change in the government, and only 20 percent thought Villepin was the man for that job.
This does not mean that Galloway had it backwards, and that opponents of the Iraq war will now find it impossible to win office in Europe. It does mean, though, that the anti-Americanism that drove certain politicians' approval ratings through the roof in 2002 and 2003 is of very limited staying power.
The constitution in question was actually a hybrid document. It was partly a codification of existing treaties and laws. But it folded in a couple of real transfers of sovereignty from nation-states to the European government that were, indeed, constitutional in nature. It would have given Europe a president and a foreign minister, both to be chosen for two-and-a-half-year terms. It would have wrested the right to legislate for the continent from the 25 constituent nation-states and given it to the 'Euro-MPs' who sit in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Once the French and Dutch referenda failed, it quickly became Brussels consensus that it had been a mistake to call the document a constitution. That's true only in retrospect; had the constitutional thingy, whatever you choose to call it, passed, the ability to paint it as a constitution would have been crucial to increasing Brussels' power and prestige. The would-be world statesmen of the next global crisis would no longer risk being derided as 'self-styled,' or as mere messenger boys for the washed-up politicians who get put out to pasture in Brussels. They would be able to say, 'Under the constitutional powers vested in me by the people of the European Union . . . '
The proceedings smacked to most voters of politicians trying to pull a fast one on them. On the site etienne.chouard.free.fr, a Marseilles secondary-school teacher with a gift for crystalline prose and a weakness for silly pictographs--particularly :o)--convinced his countrymen almost single-handed that this was the case. (One of the revolutionary developments of the past campaign, largely thanks to Etienne Chouard, has been the rise of blogging in France.) 'I haven't read the text and I simply don't have the time--too much work,' Chouard wrote late in the campaign. But he warned that the mainstream media were ignoring the main stakes of the constitution. He laid out five of them:

1. A constitution has to be readable to permit a popular vote; this text is unreadable.
2. A constitution doesn't impose a political ideology; this text is partisan.
3. A constitution is revisable; this text is locked in . . .
4. A constitution protects people from tyranny through separation of powers; this one doesn't have real checks and balances and separation of powers.
5. A constitution is not handed down by the powerful; it is established by the people themselves, to protect them from arbitrary power, through an independent constitutional assembly elected for the purpose and disbanded afterwards; this text entrenches European institutions designed 50 years ago by the men in power.
In this light, the answer to the question of why the French and Dutch voted down the European constitution is simple: because they were asked. In the Netherlands, the metaphor on everyone's lips was that of a runaway train. The young PvdA (Labor) party chairman Wouter Bos--who was placed in an awkward position when his party voted resoundingly against the treaty that he had crisscrossed the country urging them to vote for--said: 'People had the feeling that they were sitting on a runaway train. For the first time they had the chance to jump off. They had no idea how fast the train was going, or where it was headed.'
Jacques Chirac viewed the 'No' vote as a sign of resurgent nationalism, and hoped to exploit it. 'In this period,' he said last week, 'we have to rally to the national interest.' Similarly, if more subtly, Jean-Marie Colombani, editor of Le Monde, painted the French vote as a reactionary one: an assault on an E.U. that 'disrupts habits and forces changes' on largely hidebound societies. But it's not clear that he's correct. In both countries it was the center-right parties (in popular mythology, the forces of complacency) that formed the bulk of the 'Yes' vote. In France, roughly three-quarters of the two 'conservative' parties--both Jacques Chirac's UMP and former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's UDF--voted for the treaty. In Holland the market-liberal VVD and the Christian CDA were the constitutional treaty's biggest defenders, backing it by 60 and 77 percent of the vote respectively.
This leads to a puzzle: If the bastion of support for the E.U. is the center-right, then how has it happened that for so many years the E.U. has been governed from the center-left? The elections showed both countries' center-left parties--the Socialists in France and Labor in the Netherlands--to be divided right down the middle on the issue. These are alarming data: They imply that there is no 'base' constituency for the policies of the E.U. as they're currently constituted.
Holland's Christian Union, led by the political prodigy André Rouvoet, led a campaign against the E.U. that was commonsensical, couched in the language of American (even Reaganite) tax revolutionaries, and optimistic. His was the only bourgeois party of the right to oppose the treaty, voting 'No' by 86-14 percent. For Rouvoet the key fact was that the Netherlands pays more per capita into the E.U. than any other country. His party's appeal can be understood from a poll taken for the daily De Volkskrant last week. The 'No' campaigners had real, concrete issues. Their top two were (1) 'The Netherlands pays too much for the E.U.,' and (2) 'It makes us less in charge in our own country.' As for the 'Yes' campaign, its top issues were thin air. They were (1) 'Transnational politics are best addressed by the E.U.,' and (2) 'Foster cooperation between member nations.' To the barricades, he yawned.
The uncomfortable news is that, except for the Christian Union in Holland, it was hardline parties of the left and right that carried the torch for 'democracy.' Calls for Chirac to dissolve parliament came from the Trotskyite postman Olivier Besancenot and the revanchist National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. They have to be viewed more seriously than they were last month. Rightist extremism is a worry. European leaders have lazily taken to using the epithet 'anti-European' to split the difference between calling someone a fascist and patting him on the back. Calling Le Pen and the Austrian Jörg Haider 'anti-European' lets you exclude them from the councils of state without insulting extremist voters you'll need in the next election. Now that anti-Europeanism has shown itself the majority ideology in Western European referenda, we must hope potential Le Pen voters understand that politicians were merely speaking tactically. Leftist extremism is a worry, too, because of the left's organizing ability. A train strike was called in France to greet Villepin's arrival in power, and Besancenot has promised further 'social mobilizations' in coming weeks. The worry is that the French 'No' campaign, come the presidential elections of 2007, will resemble the Resistance in, say, 1948: A great coalition defeats a formidable foe, and only the Communists among them are well-enough organized to reap the benefit.
The problem at present is that mainstream politicians, national and European, have no credible lines of communication to their publics. The E.U. has taken on so many responsibilities, especially regulatory and economic ones, that the capacity of individual nation-states for full self-government has atrophied. This has spread the E.U.'s so-called 'democratic deficit' (the thing that this constitutional plebiscite was meant to fix) to national governments. Consider the Netherlands. There, nearly two-thirds of the voters repudiated the E.U.--but 85 percent of national legislators were firm (often sanctimonious) supporters of the treaty just a few short weeks ago. This gap is the hot political topic in Europe right now. It will be redressed through national elections across the continent over the next couple of years.
Until then, Europe will pass through a rocky period in which every article of bien-pensant faith gets renegotiated. On some issues, the new dispensation is already crystal-clear. One is the candidacy of Turkey for admission to the European Union. Turkey has been vying for entry since the early 1960s, and E.U. leaders agreed last winter to open the negotiations that would culminate in full membership in another decade. It won't happen. The huge number of French and Dutch 'No' voters who cited Turkey as one of their primary worries about the E.U.--whether because its cheap labor will threaten Europe's jobs or because its Muslim identity threatens Europe's cultural coherence--have turned Turkey into a third rail of European politics.
The outcome is made even more certain by the impending national elections in Germany. Bavarian prime minister Edmund Stoiber, the conservative candidate for chancellor in 2002, urged an end to Turkish accession talks. 'The European Union is not capable of accommodating itself to Turkey,' he said, 'nor is Turkey capable of accommodating itself to the European Union.' Ingo Friedrich, one of Stoiber's Christian Democratic allies, went even further last week, recommending an 'accession moratorium' not just for Turkey but also for Bulgaria and Romania, whose accession remains only to be formalized. Schröder said on Friday that he was against such reversals. But if he sticks with that position he will forfeit any chance of reelection. Turkish businessmen can read the signals. The Monday after Schröder's Social Democrats were defeated in Germany's populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Turkey's stock market lost 5 percent of its value.
There are a dozen more referenda to come before next spring, and polls show the 'Yes' side losing most of them. In fact, Europeans whose countries have already ratified the treaty feel like they've been had, and want to revisit it. A majority of Germans--who are not permitted binding referenda for reasons having to do with their 20th-century history--told pollsters at Infratest-Dimap last week that they would like to see the constitutional treaty renegotiated, even though their own legislators ratified it just last month.
Because of Article IV section 447, future referenda are totally pointless. Yet when Tony Blair sensibly suggested that he cancel his own country's referendum, the European Commission president José Manuel Dur o Barroso warned against 'unilateral actions.' Indeed, other European politicians are suggesting that Europe simply proceed to enact their favorite parts of the constitutional treaty by any means necessary. Important reforms--the European Defense Agency (which is up and running already anyway), the two-and-a-half-year presidency, the European Ministry of Foreign Affairs--can simply be declared not constitutional matters after all, and can be dealt with in the traditional manner by the Brussels bureaucracy. Luxembourg's prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, spent much of the spring urging that any country that rejected the constitution submit it to a 're-vote.'
The Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said after the French defeat, 'We must take note of the discontent expressed in this vote, and redouble our efforts to explain that this constitution enshrines the rights and freedoms of Europeans as our social model.' In general, there's a Catch-22 here. Europe's political leaders are responding to the referendum debacle with the same lack of accountability for which they've just been censured.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor of The Weekly Standard.