European integration at crossroad
The French voted 'non' Sunday. On Wednesday, the Dutch may also reject the proposed 25-nation European Constitution.
Already beset by economic doldrums, the European Union's ambitious dream of forging 25 nations into a united global powerhouse on the scale of the US or China has come to a grinding halt - at least for now.Skip to next paragraph
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By rejecting the proposed European Constitution in Sunday's referendum, France has set back plans for deeper European integration by at least a year, perhaps longer. And it's giving leaders from Poland to Portugal pause to consider what their people want from this union.
"Underneath all of this there is a more profound question, which is about the future of Europe and, in particular, the European economy," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.
The euro fell Monday to below $1.25 against the US dollar, a seven-month low.
Mr. Blair's call for "time for reflection" on that question fulfilled the fears of former French Finance Minister Dominique Strauss Kahn, who backed the Constitution. "This is clearly a stamp on the brakes," he said Sunday night as opponents of the charter won by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin. "Europe is entering a period of hibernation, and I don't know how long it will last."
The French vote has not killed the European Union, which constitutes the world's largest economy and the most ambitious experiment in transnational governance.
It has not even necessarily killed the EU's 300-page Constitution which took three years to negotiate. EU leaders are calling for the continent-wide process of country-by-country ratification to continue as planned.
"We cannot say that the treaty is dead," insisted Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, although he acknowledged that the French referendum result was a "serious problem" for a constitution that must be ratified by all EU members in order to come into force.
Some officials, such as Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who chaired the convention that drafted the Constitution, suggests that France could vote again in a year's time.
Analysts note that Chirac made a tactical mistake by choosing to ratify the Constitution by popular vote instead of a parliamentary vote. The parliaments of eight nations have ratified the vote without a hitch. Chirac isn't expected to bow to calls for his resignation but is likely to name a new cabinet.
Still, the psychological shock of France - one of the prime movers behind the European project for the last 50 years - balking Sunday at a Constitution designed to consolidate and extend the EU's achievements will be felt well beyond French borders.
"It could be a historical watershed, a turning point," predicts Dominique Moisi, one of France's most pre-eminent commentators on international affairs.
That, he says, is because few French citizens voted on the merits of the highly technical and laboriously written legal document presented for their approval. Instead, most of them were expressing their anger at their government's failure to create jobs, and their fear that the European Union can no longer shelter them from the harsh winds of globalized competition.
Few European leaders have the credibility or the courage to "help people transcend their fear, understand that the European Union is their destiny, and follow" as they push through the kind of painful economic reforms Europe needs to make itself competitive, Mr. Moisi worries.
Instead, beset by high unemployment and stagnant economies, leaders of Germany, France and Italy - all face election campaigns in the near future - are likely to see the French "non" as a signal to back-off from economic reforms.
Moisi warns that would be the wrong lesson. "As the train of history accelerates, we cannot afford to stay in the station," he says.
If the train of history is heading for a less socially conscious and more unbridled capitalist future, however, many of Europe's citizens say they should have been told the destination before being given tickets.
Indeed, the sense that elite politicians, businessmen, and journalists have built modern Europe without bothering to consult its people fueled much of the resentment against the Constitution, exit polls suggest.
"The 'no' vote was democratic revenge against the process of European construction," said Arnaud Montebourg, a French Socialist member of parliament who defied his party's leadership to campaign against the Constitution. "French voters burst in on that process."