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31 May 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

No means no
Which part of 'Non' doesn't Brussels understand?

by Bruno Waterfield

Within an hour of the French rejecting the European Constitution, senior EU figures insisted that things might not be what they seemed. France, the press, the world, might think that 55 per cent of French citizens had voted 'No', but the view was different at the heart of the EU. As French President Jacques Chirac conceded defeat, to boos from eurocrats gathered in the commission's press centre, some of the EU's most senior leaders tried to turn a setback around by ignoring mere results and interpreting 'meaning'.

Luxembourg's prime minister and current holder of the EU presidency, Jean-Claude Juncker, was the first to insist that the message was not a clear one. 'I am still very much in doubt when I look at this very mixed response in France. If we were to add up all the [no] votes of those who wanted "more Europe" as a yes then I think that we would have had a yes vote', he claimed late on Sunday night. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso agreed - perhaps the French had not really said 'non' after all. 'The messages are contradictory; some are saying they vote because they want more Europe, some are saying because they want less Europe. So it is very difficult to draw a conclusion', he suggested. 'The no camp has several contradictory messages. There was no one clear voice coming from the no camp, no one simple message.'

By seeking to unpick the meaning, the trends and tendencies behind the French vote, Juncker and Barroso are undermining its clarity. And at least one maverick European commissioner was telling journalists in the early hours of Monday morning that 'it is really a "yes", it is not a "no" at all'.

The argument runs like this. Yes, the no campaigners got a majority. But many of those campaigners, especially on the left, back a stronger EU. If French 'misconceptions', say over Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism, are put to one side, many 'nons' are in fact a 'oui' for Europe. Such 'analysis' denies the outcome of democracy. In reality, the French fought a wide-ranging popular campaign on the Constitution. The French decided. After a high-profile, engaged campaign, the French said no and the EU is in denial. To interpret the vote's meaning retrospectively is to dismiss the French debate and to imply that French people are unconscious about their destiny.

Europe's great and good have been dismayed by the French campaign. European elites are used to bemoaning euro-apathy, but the French took the issue very seriously. Guides to the EU Constitution competed with The Da Vinci Code in bestseller book lists. Cafés, bars and family dinner tables became polarised. Despite constant fears that Europe's citizens are 'disconnected', the French entered into the spirit of debate with high passions. Just one day before the referendum, the establishment French newspaper Le Figaro praised a 'long and vibrant campaign… excellent for democracy': 'We have seen a rebirth of the taste for politics, a new passion among citizens for public debate, a new urge to make informed choices.'

But for the elites of Brussels and France, it was a problem that voters were defining the debate. Whatever the merits, problems or 'misconceptions' with the French debate, it was citizens, not the Elysée or Brussels, that set the agenda.

After making a television appearance on 4 May to defend the constitution, Chirac lamented that he just could not comprehend the terms of reference of the debate. 'Frankly, I just don't understand it, and it pains me', he said. He was not alone - a palpable sense of alienation from the debate was felt elsewhere in Europe's elites. Britain's pro-European Guardian was worried that the French would not get it. 'Among the main reasons why more than half the electorate are set to reject the treaty… [is] it is long, complex and impossible for the layman to understand', the newspaper noted the day before France went to the polls. Many Europhiles took a similar stance, horrified that mere citizens were deciding the fate of a Constitution written for them, not by them.

European Commission vice-president Margot Wallström, charged with 'communicating Europe', observed a drawback in mid-April. 'There are pros and cons in arranging a referendum. The fact that it is a kind of direct democracy and will mobilise the voters speaks in favour of this form of decision-making. So does the information flow and debate it generates. But there are also downsides. It creates a divide between "yes" and "no" in the population that can be difficult to overcome. When you have a complex issue to vote on…voters can use a referendum to answer a question that was not put to them to demonstrate.'

As the French campaign unfolded so the dilemma deepened for Brussels. Yes, the French were talking about the EU. But were they debating the right questions? Were they making the right choice in the right way? Writing on her website on 26 May, Wallström acknowledged the power of the French debate and simultaneously expressed her concern over its independence from an agenda set by Europe's elites. 'I was in France last week. At least we cannot say we do not have a proper debate on the Constitution. Finally we seem to be moving beyond national issues or domestic politics', she wrote. 'In both France and the Netherlands, the real choice voters face is between the progress made in the Constitution or the limitations imposed by the Treaty of Nice. I really hope that over the crucial next days, voters focus on this choice.' But as the French vote showed, political choices, not diktat, have a tendency to emerge from debate.

The EU is governance without government
Many commentators have lamented the fact that debates in the French referendum were not about the minutiae of the Constitution text. Inevitably the campaigns widened - like any political battle - to cover a broad range of issues and concerns, many bracketed loosely under the heading 'fear of change'. The French are concerned about economic liberalism, welfare cuts and enlargement because in a real sense that is what Europe is. That the EU should become a vehicle for all kinds of political reflexes is hardly surprising.

The eurosceptic Economist noted approvingly on 27 May that Brussels has always been about sidestepping democracy. 'Every country has some complaint about policies being foisted on it from Brussels. Some of that is desirable, for the union has always been in part a means by which national governments force electorates to accept rules that they might not have been able to impose on their own.' This undemocratic tendency has been accelerated of late, as shaky governments rush to embrace an EU that counters democratic contest with technocratic consensus.

The EU is 'governance without government' - a set-up that is of great appeal to unpopular Chirac-style administrations across Europe. European political integration has not been driven by a 'big idea', or constitutions, but is a craven response to national political decay. As elite disenchantment with the postwar consensus grew, as traditional concepts of state, nation, religious values and progress became challenged as never before, so the EU flowered. Political outcomes from public budget cuts to social authoritarianism have become divorced from accountability through EU institutions. It is hardly surprising that as Europe looms larger, the issue of Europe should capture the imagination of voters when, for once, the choice is offered.

French voters, set to be followed in short order by the Dutch, have said no to the EU. But 'more EU' will be the answer from Europe's elites. Moves are already afoot in Europe's capitals, led by London but with wider support, to kill off the Constitution - and the debate and votes surrounding it. Non, nee or no will mean more Europe, and more Europe by the back door. The political dynamics that fuel the EU will be confirmed, and national political elites will be even more impelled to insulate institutions from accountability as French-style setbacks take place. The EU Constitution itself seeks to enshrine policy positions beyond politics - a tendency that will be reinforced by the results of votes. Many in Brussels are cynically suggesting that it is 'business as usual', even if the Constitution is killed.

Writing in the European edition of the Financial Times on 23 May, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform set out the approach that has been gaining ground since Sunday. 'If the French or the Dutch vote no, the European Council (EU leaders) should meet immediately', he wrote. A Brussels summit on 16 June will be the preordained rendez-vous. Grant backs a new deal based on cleaning up existing treaties and keeping 'key provisions of the Constitution' - an EU Constitution in all but name.

He forecasts how to proceed, taking a view very close to vote-averse EU capitals: 'Most EU governments would wish to avoid further referendums and would ratify this by parliamentary vote. Eurosceptics would demand referendums, complaining that arrogant politicians were again building the EU behind the backs of the people. The governments should face down such demands, pointing out that the constitutional treaty and the overwhelming majority of its provisions had been abandoned. They should explain that the new mini-treaty was about technical adjustments, to make the EU work better, rather than transfers of new powers to the EU.'

Of course, some EU leaders may not prefer this option, and others will want to keep quiet and let the dust settle: after all, current EU treaties are in place until 2009. Some will hope that a new French government after 2007, or a new Dutch administration, can ask voters again. Whatever happens, the EU's political elites will not accept that a French 'non' means no. There will be efforts to interpret the result away, to sidestep votes and introduce more Europe by the back door. Those of us who are true Europeans should demand the debate goes on. More engagement with, and less evasion of, politics is the true European democratic tradition.

Bruno Waterfield is editor of the Brussels-based website Eupolitix and Parliament magazine.

Read on:

The reawakening of European democracy, by Frank Furedi

For Europe, but not the EU, by Mick Hume

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