30 May 2005


The “no” victory in the French referendum on the EU constitution cannot have come as much of a surprise to anyone, although the margin was rather bigger than I expected because I thought there would be a last-minute swing to “yes” that did not happen.

It’s hardly the end of civilisation as we know it, but it is depressing. The constitutional treaty is a long way short of perfect: it is for the most part aimed at making the existing intergovernmentalist EU structures work more efficiently and contains little to address the union’s democratic deficit. But if implemented it would create an institutional settlement that could be improved over time.

Now, however, it looks as if it won’t be implemented: it is difficult to see how the treaty can survive the French “no”, and it will be dead and buried if the Dutch reject it too.

It is even more difficult, however, to see how a better constitutional treaty can be negotiated, at least in the short term. Of course, it is possible that the European political class responds to the setback with the imagination, dynamism, flexibility and commitment to democratic principle that were so conspicuous by their absence in the horse-trading that created the constitutional treaty. But that’s rather unlikely. All the major players are in weak positions domestically. Jacques Chirac has been seriously damaged by yesterday’s vote. Germany faces a general election in autumn that is likely to lead to a change of government. Tony Blair in Britain has announced he will retire during this term. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy looks to be on the way out.

So the most plausible scenario is that the EU’s institutions muddle through for the next few years, adopting some of the measures in the constitutional treaty but failing to do anything to stem popular criticism of their democratic illegitimacy.

If Peter Mandelson’s take on the French referendum is anything to go by, the Blairites in Britain think that the solution is to change the subject from the EU’s institutional arrangements to economic reform, but my hunch is that this would only make matters worse. The French “no” was at least in part a protest against what many voters perceived as the threat to the welfare state and to working conditions from “Anglo-Saxon” “neo-liberalism” and globalisation – epitomised by French companies relocating in east-central Europe, Polish plumbers coming to work in France, Chinese white goods flooding the shops and so on.

I’ll accept that there is a case for market-oriented reform both of certain EU policies – not least the Common Agricultural Policy – and of certain aspects of the (national) labour-market and welfare-state regimes of “old Europe”. But telling continental Europe that the solution to all its ills is to become more like Britain is idiotic. It’s not only guaranteed to put backs up, it’s also at odds with key facts on the ground. Compare the West Coast main line with the TGV. Remember Germany’s remarkable export performance even with 12 per cent unemployment. And don’t forget Britain’s housing bubble and pensions crisis . . .

The comrades from Socialism in an Age of Waiting have a good post here.

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