- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

The crisis of confidence in Europe’s leadership widens. The question in the wake of the Dutch and French rejection of the European Union constitution is what European leaders will do about it. The immediate answer: They will take sides in the looming showdown between French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the long run, however, they must consider something considerably more radical than choosing sides in a fight. They must abandon the widely held elitist view that public opposition to grand EU designs is a problem to be surmounted. Instead, they must start considering public sentiment as they should in democracies, as guidance, not rule.

The more immediate conflict begins in two weeks at the EU Summit on June 16, expected by diplomats to open a fight between Messrs. Blair and Chirac over the direction of Europe. With the British assuming the EU presidency and Mr. Chirac gearing for battle, sparks will fly. The French will seek to curb the economic reforms that threaten European socialism and protectionism while continuing to push the political integration this week’s constitution votes call seriously into question. The British, by contrast, will push for something approaching the opposite: Economic reforms and liberalization, with a lesser emphasis on the political dimensions of EU integration. Both sides face uphill battles: France and “old” Europe on unpopular political integration, and Britain and “new” Europe on the economics of reform.

On the longer term question, however, the lines aren’t so clear. European elites seem to be caught flat-footed. In an interview with The Washington Times a few hours after the Dutch results poured in, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s newly appointed commissioner for external relations, told us: “It cannot be business as usual for us, as we must respect the will of the people.” But somewhere along the way democratic sentiment in her thinking seemed to dribble away. If the EU is going too fast for the people, she told us, then leaders “must carry them along.” In a speech prepared for the European Institute, she said that “Perhaps, in our enthusiasm, we have allowed the political vision to get too far ahead of public opinion. Our societies need time to consolidate before rising to the next challenge.”

What’s missing from this is the notion that the people might not want “the next challenge.” For all the talk that 10 European countries have ratified the EU constitution, it’s important that only one of them, Spain, did so by vote and referendum. In the other nine cases — which include Germany, Italy, Hungary, Greece and several “new” Europe countries — parliamentary votes approved it. Thus it’s not clear whether public opinion in nine of the 10 approving countries really approves the constitution, or whether elite opinion judged it for them.

If European leaders take the democratic imperative seriously, they may find it is harder to get their integrationist agenda through — and, indeed, that it’s harder to dismiss a thousand years of history and culture than they thought.

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