The superstate of Eurocratic dreams is foundering. On Sunday, 55 percent of French voters rejected the proposed European Union constitution, significantly reducing its chances of becoming law and casting doubt on aspects of European integration as currently conceived. The immediate political casualties include first of all French President Jacques Chirac, whose government is in disarray, and then pro-integrationists in the Netherlands, who expect to lose in a referendum today.
The French vote constitutes a firm rebuke to the anti-democratic high-handedness of European leaders, particularly those headquartered in Brussels. If it causes European elites to consult ordinary people before trying to change the continent’s basic political arrangements, the result will be all to the good. For if a deeper union is to be forged, leaders must remember that regular Europeans — and not just continental elites — are part of the bargain.
As data from the Ipsos polling agency shows, opposition was broad and showed up in places that mean trouble for the reigning currents of pro-integrationist thought. The “yes” vote clustered around Paris and Lyon, and Alsace and Brittany provinces, but just about everywhere else the “no” vote dominated. Fifty-five percent of young voters opposed it. Add French farmers — who benefit substantially from favorable EU subsidy arrangements — who opposed the constitution by a two-to-one margin, blue-collar and government workers, who opposed it in similar numbers, and the array of far-left and far-right voters, who opposed it in near unanimity, and something like a real national consensus against the constitution emerges.
Why did French voters find it so objectionable? At the most basic level, because of globalization, including discontent over foreign competition, the encroachment of so-called “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism in France’s socialist system and the sizeable numbers of Muslim immigrants the constitution would have invited in. The constitution would have further strengthened Brussels’ foreign-policy hand.
Ordinary voters like none of this. French voters exercised most of all their democratic right to be consulted on major changes in their government. In some respects the EU constitution — a dense, 485-page document little understood despite the intense interest and the many nonfiction bestsellers it spawned — epitomizes the antidemocratic power-grabbing that voters everywhere rightly distrust and despise.
Whether this vote is merely a large bump on the road to further integration or the end of the road will only emerge slowly. More cooperation and coordination is possible. The elites will try. But the grand old dream of a United States of Europe is decidedly less plausible.