On the Sunday evening and Monday morning after the French voters’ definitive non to the European constitution, the French president worked the phones. According to his spokesman, he called, among others, the German chancellor, the British prime minister, and sundry European bureaucrats and commissioners, assuring all of them of France’s commitment to the construction of Europe and urging all of them to keep the ratification process on track. Everyone should go on, in other words, as if nothing important had happened.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose: In 1992, after the French had held what turned out to be an extraordinarily close, nail-biting vote on the treaty that set up the common European currency, the then-president, Francois Mitterand, declared the 51.4 percent oui majority a great victory, and he, too, went on as if nothing had happened. The French are not unique in this respect. Indeed, one of the most remarkable characteristics of the European Union is the ability of its leaders to keep building their institutions and expanding their power, not only ignoring but self-righteously ignoring European voters. In the months before its adoption, when opinion polls showed that most Germans were also opposed to a single European currency, I asked a German politician whether this bothered him. No, he said: The job of a politician is to explain to the people what is good for them, not the other way around.
But the democratic deficit was built into the European project from the beginning, and it has grown along with Europe’s institutions. For Europe is not, in fact, a nation; the European Commission is not, in fact, a sovereign government; and the European parliament actually has rather narrow powers and limited legitimacy. Nevertheless, the European Union writes more European law every year and influences a wider range of policies, from environmental regulation to arts subsidies to the length of the workweek. As a result, Europe’s national parliaments are less important than they used to be, and national debates matter less too. Why argue about something you can’t influence?
So far, the popular response to this erosion of democracy — which has coincided with an economic slowdown in much of Europe, as well as a wave of North African and Eastern European immigration — has been an anguished and inchoate series of “anti-establishment” protest votes. In no particular order, I would count among these the surprise second-place showing of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the last French presidential election; the success of the maverick Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, before his assassination; the unexpected support for the Austrian anti-immigration politician Joerg Haider; the growing numbers of Belgians who vote for a Flemish nationalist party that could theoretically divide their country; and of course, the anti-constitutional campaigners in France and the Netherlands.
Although all of these politicians have had different agendas, they shared a common Euro-skepticism, as well as a common nationalism — or a common patriotism, if you want to be more positive about it. Fortuyn defended Dutch traditions of tolerance against what he said was the anti-gay and anti-feminist rhetoric of Holland’s Muslim immigrants. Haider occasionally flirted with Nazi nostalgia. But for better or worse, all were responding to their countrymen’s understandable if not always eloquent feelings that in the rush to unify Europe, their own national identities, traditions and legal systems had been obscured. Indeed, a major part of the opposition to the European constitution comes from the fact that it is called a “constitution,” a word usually understood to signify the founding legal document of a single country.
There are signs that a few Europeans understand that Europe is not a nation, and that attempts to make it become one without popular consent will fail. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called for Europe to stop and “reflect” before the ratification process is continued. If the rest of the European political class follows his lead, it might still be possible to rename the thing — call it a treaty, perhaps — and renegotiate it, incorporating only those bits designed to make a larger Europe easier to run.
But Chirac’s first reaction did not suggest that he recognizes the need for retrenchment. Nor did his second reaction, which was to name Dominique de Villepin, a fierce pro-European who has never stood for election at all, as the new French prime minister. Nor did his colleague the German chancellor, who called the French vote a “setback” for the constitution but not its “end.” Nor did the European commissioner who pointed out that France could still “revisit” the issue and “possibly come forward with a different view.”
Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose: And if European leaders, and the French above all, do not recognize that Europe needs to be run more democratically, expect the backlash to be broader, more powerful and possibly nastier the next time around.