European Union Not a Foregone Conclusion: Public Weighs the Benefits and Costs of Integration

Article excerpt

The French and Dutch rejections of the European Constitution has opened a serious crisis within the European Union. European leaders meeting in Brussels June 16 and 17 will be struggling to identify the causes of this rejection, and the actions they take will determine if the union bounces back--as it has so often in the past--or if European integration freezes in place for years to come.

The European Union has suffered many setbacks in its 50-year march to integration. The most marked setback was France's rejection of the European Defense Community back in 1954 because it feared the rearmament of Germany.

Since then other treaties have suffered limited rejections, such as the 1993 rejection by Denmark of the Maastricht Treaty which established the Euro and the union, or the Nice Treaty, which had to be voted on twice in 2001 by Ireland. None of these rejections stopped European integration--partly because the opposition did not come from a founding state.

What makes the most recent rejections exceptional is their commanding majority in two founding member states: Fifty-five percent of French voters and 62 percent of Dutch voters said no. The unambiguous rejection of the constitution caused Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende to announce that his government wished to "open the debate" over Europe's future with the Dutch population.

Causes of the rejection

It was precisely a lack of public debate on Europe's future that European voters are responding to, according to Pierre Verluise, a French political scientist and author of Geopolitics of the European Union: The EU enlargement, what it will change? (Ellipses, 2005). The historical process by which Europe was built, Verluise said, "is the result of a mode of functioning and of a process of construction that took place without a public debate."

Verluise said that because of this lack of debate, the European Union came to be seen in the popular perception as constructed by and for the elites. The "people on the street" felt the Union is costing them much and bringing them little and this, according to Verluise, accounts for public opinion boomeranging against European integration.

Bronislaw Geremek, a Polish member of the European Parliament and a former adviser to the Solidarnosc union and a former Polish foreign affairs minister, called the French no the expression of "a lack of hope in the European Union" and of "disappointment" in the enlargement to the East.

Verluise agreed with Geremek and added that even the younger generations who had been favorable to Europe joined the majority "no" vote.

Alain Wijffels, a professor of European constitutional history at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, lectures on legal history at several universities in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. He found "a correlation between the blue-collar vote and the rejection of the constitution, particularly in areas where unemployment is high."

But Wijffels pointed out that "even among highly educated voters, it has become fashionable to take a stand against European integration." He said these groups feel their social benefits are under threat.

Wijffels said French debate about the referendum took a "surrealistic turn" with the rise of the "Polish plumber," an apocryphal story about the mass immigration of low-wage Eastern European laborers taking jobs from workers in the West. Verluise said, "The 'Polish plumber' was a popular fantasy" perpetuated by opponents of constitution. He noted that the movement of Eastern workers is restricted by the integration treaties, but the story nevertheless caught the imagination of voters.

People long to "restore the bygone national system," he said.

Lost 'grandeur'

The French no also had to do with the French being disillusioned by their loss of "grandeur." "When France accepted the European Community, it was considered as a means for recouping the power lost during the decolonization process," Verluise said. …