French ?non? raises alarm over the future of Europe
By Aidan White
Is it a lover'stiff, or have the French, the great romantics of Europe, finally signalled the beginning of the end of Europe'slove affair with Brussels and the grand project of European political union?
Already the pessimists, particularly the vocal anti-Europeans in Britain, predict a doomsday scenario?a steady retreat from any programme of further political harmonisation and even the possibility of withdrawal from the European Union by some countries.
On June 1, 2005 people in the Netherlands, which, like France, is a founder-member of the original European Economic Community back in the 1950s, are also expected to dump the constitutional treaty.
Once the dominos start falling, we can expect other countries that plan to ballot their citizens, including Britain, to follow suit.
It looks bad, but it is premature to say that the political union has reached the end of the line. Indeed, this could be just the cold-shower treatment that has been long overdue for complacent political leaders. It may be the shock that gets the European project back on track.
The angry debate in France has shown dramatically just how the European political leaders have failed to connect with their citizens.
People on the streets know little about how the European Union works, but over the years, they have kept faith with a European dream that promises peace and prosperity. Suddenly, it seems, across the continent, people are no longer willing to invest blind faith in the European project.
The recent expansion to a 25-nation union has led to new anxieties about the type of Europe that is being created. In France, people are worried that the social welfare model of European politics is being undermined by neo-liberal economics.
At the same time, unscrupulous players on the political fringe are whipping up xenophobic sentiment, particularly around the controversial proposal to bring Turkey into the family.
There is certainly a problem about the European Union'scommunication strategy ? there isn'tone. Much of the debate about the Constitution has been full of wind and misinformation and exposes the failure of national governments to reassure their citizens about the direction Europe is taking.
Brussels responded to the widespread ignorance about the European Union last year by appointing a Commission vice president, Margot Wallstrom, as communications chief with a brief to get Brussels better understood by the citizens of Europe. But six months into the job, she has made little progress in dismantling the bureaucratic barriers that make Brussels a notorious centre of secrecy and obfuscation.
However, the French vote cannot just be blamed on lack of communications or poor public relations. The antics of some governments over the years are also to blame. When it has suited their national cause, politicians have presented the European Union as a conspiracy to promote the interests of others. Leaders have played with national sensibilities and, as a result, they may have severely weakened faith in the union.
The achievements of the European Union?the elimination of fascist dictatorships, the integration of former communist states into a new democratic landscape, the maintenance of an unprecedented period of peace in one of the world'smost violent continents?are being put in the shade.
By undermining the European project, self-serving local politicians diminish the importance of strengthening economic, social and strategic interests of European States, without which it will be impossible for these same States to do meaningful business with countries like India, China or the United States.
They also risk undermining the spirit of collective enterprise that has made the European Union a world leader in dealing with crucial issues which are vital to the future of the planet?trade, development and the environment in particular. Even worse, this brand of politics may begin to unravel the fabric of the European Union. There is much at stake, which is why the French vote should set alarm bells ringing across Europe.
Most Europeans can live with the loss of a poorly-presented and barely understood treaty, which should never have been called a Constitution in the first place (it is much too wordy and technical for that), but if it leads to people losing sight of the vision of civilisation and unity that inspired the creation of the European Union in the first place, then every European stands to lose.
(The writer Aidan White is the General Secretary of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the world'sbiggest journalists? organisation.)