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Europe Stumbles on Path to Greater Integration

As of June 1, 2005, nine of the European Union's 25 members had ratified the constitution. But France and the Netherlands voted within days of each other to reject it.
Geoff Gaudreault, NPR /
As of June 1, 2005, nine of the European Union's 25 members had ratified the constitution. But France and the Netherlands voted within days of each other to reject it.

The Netherlands today followed France in rejecting the European Union constitution, according to exit polls, a result that sent fresh shockwaves through the European political establishment. Not only did the rejection lead to a cabinet shakeup in France, it is likely to have strong repercussions on the continent's broader political landscape as well.

A sampling of headlines in the European media gives a sense of the dismay and uncertainty the French "no" unleashed: "A Turning Point for French and European Union History," "Europe has Been Brought to a Standstill," and "Masochist Masterpiece."

Just one year after the European Union expanded from 15 to 25 member states, the continent's integration process appears to have come to a halt. Political analysts fear that rejection of the constitution will lead to a deadlocked and inward-looking EU, unsure of whether to continue the ratification process.

A Loss of Momentum

The European Union will not dissolve. It will continue to function under the previous, cumbersome treaties. But it will certainly lose momentum. Decision-making could be stalled for months, enlargement to new members — particularly Muslim Turkey — will become more difficult, and it may become harder to impose spending and currency discipline, leading to economic uncertainty.

The reasons for the "no" vote in France were various, contradictory and even irrational. The "no" front stretched from the extreme right to the extreme left, and included a large number of young people. A key factor was widespread unease over last year's EU expansion, which prompted fears of job losses to East Europeans willing to work for lower wages (the so-called Polish plumber invasion).

France is already facing problems integrating and assimilating its 5 million Muslims and their traditions into an officially secular society. Large numbers of French voters were very worried about the possibility that Turkey, with a population of 70 million Muslims, could also become an EU member.

Opponents, especially those on the left, have said the constitution promotes the "hire and fire" culture of unfettered capitalism — the so-called "Anglo-Saxon capitalism" they claim to see in the United States and United Kingdom. However, supporters of the constitution say it merely continues the free-market economy of the West European democracies that has always been at the heart of Europe's common market.

Concerns over European integration are not limited to the French. Continental Europeans in general cherish the security and solidarity of their cradle-to-grave welfare benefits, they fear globalization and they're worried about immigration. They're also disenchanted with the political elites that designed an expanded union without bringing citizens into the preparatory political debate.

Many analysts say that the European Union, which was created as a means to prevent a repeat of the devastation of World War II, has fulfilled the goal of ensuring peace and freedom and now needs to face new challenges. They say young Europeans are fed up with the distant un-elected bureaucrats in Brussels deciding their destiny. They want to have a bigger say in a more open and democratic Europe.

The "no" vote did not reflect simply malaise over the constitution but over the very concept of Europe itself, as if Europeans feel they've lost control over its direction.

No Plan B

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso tried to put on a brave face, but he acknowledged there is no plan b. And different positions have already begun to emerge among the member states.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder — whose parliament has already ratified the treaty-- said the failure of the French referendum is a setback for the constitutional process, but it's not the end. But British Foreign Minister Jack Straw has called for a pause for reflection, a statement that casts doubt on whether Britain would go ahead with its referendum on the constitution next year.

The failure to ratify a European constitution could also affect trans-Atlantic relations. Many European analysts suspect there's a sense of relief in some American circles — those that fear a stronger Europe could evolve into a counterweight to U.S. power, and those who prefer a less united continent, where Washington can pick and chose its allies, as it did in the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

But those analysts point out that a weaker, divided Europe will not benefit the United States. They point out that there are anti-American aspects to the French "no" vote, especially in the anti-free market and anti-globalization sentiments of those voters.

And, they say, a halt to EU enlargement will likely leave out key U.S. allies, Turkey and Ukraine, and also the Balkan states, whose membership would be a guarantee of their political stability.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.