- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

PARIS — Sunday the French vote on the European Constitution. It appears increasingly likely they will vote “non.” The repercussions for France, Europe and Trans-Atlantic relations will be huge and mostly negative.

“Non” will end Europe’s decades-long march away from state planning toward the free market. It will also end French President Jacques Chirac’s aspiration to make Europe a global superpower.

With only days until the vote, the partisans of constitutional rejection are ahead and appear to be gaining ground. Polls have shown the two sides neck-and-neck over the last few months, but recent signs indicate the constitution opponents may pull away, into a strong lead. A telling sign is that the politically savvy former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, not known as an anti-European, has stepped up his campaign for a “non” vote. He has even aligned with the populist farmer-political figure Jose Bove, who captured attention by demolishing a McDonald’s a few years ago. The alliance of the respectable politico and the populist man-of-the-people is menacing.

To a large degree the “non” sentiment has little to do with the constitution. Despite its name, the constitution is the treaty that emerged from a grand constitutional convention headed by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

The convention was meant to push European integration a step further by rationalizing and extending the body of law that binds European states together in the European Union. The document that emerged from the long negotiations was neither as simple nor as elegant as many had hoped, but it did boil down thousands of pages of law to a few hundred.

The “non” camp’s complaint, however, has little to do with the treaty itself. What the rejectionists object to is really the whole course of European integration over the last several years and, particularly, the economic liberalization at its core.

Europe’s long march toward the free market began in the mid-1980s. In large part it was due to the impetus of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Liberalization represented a substantial shift in strategy and required a substantial change in the mindset of Europe’s elites and citizens. Though prior to World War II many European countries, (including France) had been faithful to free market principles, after the Great Depression most European countries put their faith in the path of economic planning and government intervention. Over the last two decades, Europe has liberalized its internal markets, opened them to more outside competition, and introduced a single currency.

The introduction of the euro in and of itself represents a major step toward the institutionalizing the free market by improved price transparency and making high government spending more difficult. More recently, the European Commission has opened Europe’ textile markets to Chinese imports, and set out to liberalize Europe’s internal services market.

These policies are ambitious in themselves. When coupled with the European Union’s parallel policy of eastern enlargement, however, they are nearly revolutionary. When Margaret Thatcher began to make her push for liberalizing Europe’s internal markets in the mid-1980s, the European Union had only 12 members. Now there are 25.

Opponents of the constitution argue that adding a host of poor states still recovering from the ravages of Soviet imperialism threatens to dislodge workers in France and bring down wages across in all of Europe’s wealthy states. France’s unemployment has hovered at a painful 10 percent for more than a decade. This has made these arguments against further competition appealing even in some normally pro-European quarters.

In the short term, the opening to Chinese textiles has probably exacerbated the situation. France and other rich European countries have already experienced substantial immigration from Eastern Europe. An invasion of Polish plumbers is next, opponents of the treaty claim.

Beyond these economic concerns, lie larger geopolitical complaints. Throughout most of the Cold War, when the club was small and Germany still divided, France was preeminent. Now there are more than twice as many club members, and France’s capacity to shape Europe’s agenda is much diminished as was made clear by the Iraq war rift between France and the new EU members.

The repercussions of a no vote would be enormous. Some scholars today believe European integration may eventually lead to a European superpower on par with America. But this seems very unlikely if Europe’s progress toward market liberalization stalls. It goes without saying it will be extremely difficult for Europe to develop the power needed to carry out the balancing role Mr. Chirac wants for Europe.

Without liberalization and the economic growth that would bring, it is very hard to imagine Europe will be able to afford the expenditures to enter the same league as America today.

Further, Europe is an economy the size of America’s. It has the potential to help drive global economic growth forward for the next several decades. If it backs off from the free market, a major chance for 21st-century economic growth will be lost.

If the French prefer their generous welfare state and the high unemployment and slow growth it entails, there is of course no reason they should not vote down the constitution and stop Europe’s liberalizing locomotive in its tracks.

If, however, they wish to put an end to unemployment and take on a position of real global leadership alongside America, they cannot afford to turn away from the free-market principles promoted by the European Union.

Charles de Gaulle once said of an earlier aspirant of European unification, that Napoleon was a genius but “overzealous.” If France votes down the constitution on Sunday, the great project European leaders have set for themselves in the last decade may prove worthy of a similar judgment.

Christopher S. Chivvis is adjunct professor for European studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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