- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

France and the Netherlands have issued a resounding “no” to the EU Constitution. But before seeing this as a basic assault on Project Europe, it is important to look at some of the special reasons for the rejection — and decide what to do.

One reason the European “constitution” was rejected May 29 by French voters and June 1 by Dutch voters was it had the wrong name. The document is not, technically, a constitution but a “constitutional treaty.” It takes the bulk of existing European Union law, adds devices to deal with the addition of 10 member nations, and republishes material from other acts of union beginning with the 1956 Treaty of Rome.

Mislabeling created wrong expectations — and thus inflated the fears of people already roiled by contemporary change.

A second reason for the French rejection was the decision by several European countries, notably France and Britain, to hold referenda. Most people in Europe haven’t read the 474-page document, don’t know much of what it says, and aren’t sure how they would be affected. This makes possible misrepresentation of the complex document in simple terms by supporters and opponents who have their own agendas.

Also, a referendum now under the current French government just cried out for a protest vote. President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin — fired by Mr. Chirac after the vote — are deeply unpopular, overwhelmingly tempting many citizens to vote “no” on anything the two offered.

For the Dutch, the reasons were different and more direct. Worry about immigrants and the prospect Turkey would join the EU were most important. But neither were a fundamental rejection of the EU or even of most of the constitutional treaty that here, as elsewhere, went largely unread.

The constitutional treaty was all along just a work in progress — one more step on the long path to European integration. Several leaders who should have known better bet too much of their prestige on the treaty sailing through to ratification, as it did recently in the German Bundesrat. Mr. Chirac bet the farm and lost, thus seeming to undercut French commitment to Europe and its willingness to lead in what is still the most important project in European history.

All this creates a crisis, even if the rejection of this particular document is vastly overblown. How can either the French or the Dutch “no” vote be seen as rejecting “globalization,” when few have read the document, which has little to do with globalization beyond limited elements like immigration?

In politics, symbols matter; but in the real world, so does substance. If the constitutional treaty now goes down, some key provisions will be lost, such as shifts in voting power in the EU to accommodate the new members, further steps toward reducing the “democracy deficit” of a weak European Parliament, and some useful rhetoric about ultimate goals.

But even if the French and Dutch have put a stake through the heart of the constitutional treaty — and European bureaucrats are amazingly ingenious in working past supposedly insuperable problems — little else has altered.

The Europeans’ lives will not change because of the French and Dutch votes. The Amsterdam Treaty and a mountain of regulations will still govern EU activities. The daily work of the great EU machine will continue. European leaders will go back to the drawing board as they should have months ago, when it was clear the draft submitted for a vote inspired no hearts.

Just 50 years ago, the French parliament similarly rejected creation of a European Defense Community, designed to ease the rearmament of West Germany by imbedding its military in a Europewide institution. This was too much loss of sovereignty, too soon. But just 42 days later, France accepted an alternative, which brought Germany into NATO with even fewer limits on it military forces than the EDC would have produced.

Britain, quietly backed by the United States, sponsored that earlier rescue mission. Others must lead a new rescue mission this time. But America has a role, based on recognizing the European Union’s success benefits the U.S.

Washington must now tread carefully, lest what has been happening gets put down, improbably, to a U.S.-British plot. This view is given credence by over-hasty calls for “reflection” about the future of the EU by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

At the end of this month, President Bush will host EU leaders in Washington for their annual summit with the United States. He will have the chance to show the Europeans the U.S. still stands behind Europe’s historic effort to bury forever its awful history of conflict and tragedy.

President Bush should propose the next great leap forward in trans-Atlantic cooperation: a grand venture that will bring NATO and the EU together and forge a new U.S.-EU strategic partnership. The U.S. and the Europeans need this anyway — for the Middle East and beyond.

With at least this draft of the EU constitutional treaty seemingly finished, leadership and inspiration in a 21st century trans-Atlantic partnership takes on added, critical importance.

Robert E. Hunter was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998 and is a senior adviser at the RAND Corp.

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