THE COMING FRENCH NO VOTE - A DISASTER FOR EUROPE?

Marcel H. VAN HERPEN

Director, Cicero Foundation

The possibility of a French no vote on the occasion of the referendum on the European Constitution can no longer be excluded and in many European capitals a growing nervousness can be observed. Commentators ask themselves what the consequences will be for the Constitution. Will it definitively be dead or can it still be saved by some kind of artificial reanimation? Let us examine the different scenarios that may happen after a French no-vote:

1. The French no vote will remain an isolated event and will not be followed by the parliaments or electorates of the other EU member states (except, probably, Britain). In this case one might expect that the French - after some minor symbolic concessions on a 'social Europe' have been added in a protocol - will be asked to vote again, as the Irish and the Danes did before them.

2. If more EU member states vote against - let us say: four or five - the no-vote will get enough momentum to consider the Constitution definitively dead and buried.

3. What will happen in this case? The malaise will be great and the possibility that a second effort will be made to revamp the Constitution in a time-consuming Convention must be excluded. Especially France will find itself in a delicate position. Apart from streamlining the institutional framework the Constitution meant an important leap forward in the field of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, an old French policy goal. France would find itself in the same embarassing position as in 1954 when the French Assemblée blocked the European Defence Community, which equally was essentially a French project.

4. A revamping of the Constitution being excluded, the EU governments may return to a policy of 'piecemeal engineering', a policy of small steps in the European Council which - in the end - even might have the same impact as the new Constitution. This is, of course, not the most beautiful scenario, because it deepens the rift between the political elites and the European populations, and might, therefore, lead to a drawback in the form of the emergence of populist and nationalist movements.

5. A French no vote could trigger also another outcome: it could boost a renewed interest of the French and German political elites for a Franco-German 'core' Europe. The German Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has lost his original interest in this idea, but a 'Great Coalition' of SPD and CDU/CSU that soon could replace the existing coalition, could revive this idea that was launched in 1994 by the CDU members Schäuble and Lamers.

6. Such a 'core-ification' of the French-German axis will inevitably lead to to the formation of other groups in the EU by excluded EU members, such as occurred with the ad-hoc axis of the UK, Italy, Spain and Poland that emerged as a countervailing bloc against the Franco-German axis during the Iraq conflict. These other groups might be more temporary and volatile (cf. the case of Spain that changed its camp after the elections), because they lack the institutional strength of the Franco-German co-operation, but their formation during the Iraq War was a 'mene tekel' on the wall of Europe, warning the Europeans of a 're-marketization' of Europe, reducing the EU to its original status of a common market on top of which there is no common political Europe, but several political groupings. There exists therefore a real danger that the still embryonic Political Europe could disintegrate into three blocs: a French-German dominated core-Europe, a transatlantic North-West Europe around Britain, and an Eastern bloc that would organise the new EU member countries that were part of the former CMEA (Comecon) into a pro-US bloc.

According to one author "Our continent is confronted with two burning problems: the social and the European problem (…). The social question is, rightly, the main subject of the public debate (…). At the same time the European question, which is not of lesser importance, is simply ignored. Many don't even know about its existence … it is not taken seriously." The author, so it seems, is talking about the coming French referendum, where the debate about the importance of the European project is hijacked by national politics and social questions ('l'Europe sociale', 'l'Europe untra-libérale'). In fact this quotation comes from the book 'Pan-Europa', published in 1923 by Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, the father of the European idea. More than eighty years later his words still have a great actuality, warning the Europeans that their disaffection with the economic policies of their national governments should not jeopardise the extremely important task of building and consolidating a politically viable Europe.

Paris, 11 April 2005