When 'Non' Means So Much More

Just the way a domestic argument over who will empty the dishwasher can expose deep resentment about who does what around the house, so has the debate to ratify the European Constitution turned out to be about something bigger than the document itself.

If just the Constitution itself had been discussed, it's hard to see how it could have been trounced so thoroughly by French voters in a Sunday referendum. In isolation, it's nothing more than a useful simplification of the European Union's existing treaties - a way to smooth the workings of the cumbersome 25-member EU, and to give Europe as a whole more foreign-policy oomph.

But the debate over the referendum ballooned into a gripefest over a host of French concerns: its 10.2 percent jobless rate; its sovereignty against EU bureaucrats in Brussels; the elitism of French and EU leaders; cheap labor from eastern Europe; Turkey on the EU membership track.

None of these - except, perhaps, the elitism issue - really relates to the Constitution, passed by nine countries so far. But Brussels would be making a big mistake if it deemed France's objections not relevant. With the Dutch also expected to vote "no" in a referendum on Wednesday, and the British leaning against, it's time for the EU to reconsider how best to seek its goal of an ever closer union.

The EU began five decades ago as an economic club, designed to curb nationalism in the wake of two world wars and to foster economic growth at the same time. It's done remarkably well at both, but cracks are appearing in the peace and prosperity model.

With concerns about immigrants and Islamic terrorism, many Europeans no longer feel secure. And with 12 countries which share the euro currency expecting economic growth of only 1.6 percent this year, the prosperity promise sounds hollow.

This isn't to say the integration process should stop. The great magnet of EU potential membership has forced welcome democratic and economic change in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey. Those changes work to improve Europe's security, not weaken it.

And while France may lament jobs lost to companies moving to cheaper Eastern Europe, that loss is dwarfed by the number of jobs created by French trade with those countries.

No, the integration trend should not stop. But the doubters must be heard, must believe they're being heard, and must receive convincing arguments countering their concerns. Obviously, that hasn't happened yet.

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