A French ‘no’: looming crisis for Europe?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A ‘no’ vote in the French referendum on the EU Constitution will represent both a European and a French political failure to explain, to engage, to communicate and debate effectively. A ‘no’ vote will also almost certainly plunge the EU into a major political crisis, says Kirsty Hughes in her paper for the European Policy Institutes Network.

So what are the main likely implications of a French ‘no’? A ‘no’ vote, it is clear will represent a mixture of concerns on the part of different French voters – some will be domestic, a typical use of a referendum to reflect discontent with the government of the day, and some will be global, reflecting unease at, through to opposition to, the ongoing economic, political and cultural impact both of globalisation and of US hegemony in the post-cold war and post-9/11 world. But some part of the ‘no’ vote will indeed be reflecting concern at the current perceived political and economic development of the EU, and within that concerns at what the constitution stands for or is perceived to stand for. And so a ‘no’ vote cannot in any way be dismissed by arguing that the voters were not voting on the constitution – the vote will be in part on the EU, and will have to be taken as such. 

Such a failure will be one that points in two directions – firstly it will suggest that the constitution drafting was not radical enough or oriented enough to the key issue of bringing the EU closer to the people and making it much more accessible, and secondly, it will be an ongoing failure of the European political and policy classes to engage and communicate effectively and in a two-way manner. It is disturbing, if only a too typical ‘Brussels’ response, to read leading commentators arguing that perhaps these matters are too technocratic to be put to popular vote – this deserves perhaps the Brechtian jibe in response that it would be best to dissolve the people and elect another. National and EU democracy are precisely about debating all issues where government or EU bodies have a role and a say, however complex. If the EU’s politicians still cannot figure out how to be part of an accessible political debate on the Union, then they do indeed deserve to face ‘nos’ from the Union’s publics. 

It seems that a French ‘no’ will be driven in part by a mixture of concerns about the EU and the constitution: concern at French loss of political power and influence in the EU, not just since last year’s enlargement to 25 but indeed since 1989 (and since German reunification in 1990); concern at the growing perceived ‘Anglicisation’ of the EU, both with the Eftan enlargement of 1994 as well as the 2004 enlargement; concern at perceived Anglo-Saxon economic tendencies in EU policies and in the constitution; and concern at future Turkish membership of the Union.

To read the paper in full, please visit the EPIN website.

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