After the French and Dutch Referenda: What prospects for the Treaty?

4 June 2005

Opening the Dialogue John Palmer, Political Director of the European Policy Centre, said that a crucial flaw in national governments’ approach to Europe was the use of Brussels as a scapegoat for unpopular policies: “You cannot portray the EU as a battlefield on which one has to defend national interests six days a week and then expect people to vote in favour of it on Sunday.” At the same time, the resounding “no” votes on the Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands had confirmed that the EU could no longer be sold as a ‘top-down’ process. The passive consensus that rallied people around the idea of Europe following the end of the Second World War had outlived itself.

The younger generation of Europeans – those demonstrating against the treaty in the streets of Paris and The Hague waved European flags and felt pro-European. But they no longer felt the geopolitical, anti-war rhetoric sufficiently convincing as a raison d’être for the European Union. With these “no” votes European governments were now paying the price for the long-standing alienation of European voters from the decision-making process. In addition to this perceived crisis on the European level, the bulk of European countries was also suffering from a crisis of national politics: both French President Jacques Chirac and Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende were unpopular with their electorates.

The referenda had provided an occasion to deliver a stinging reproof to national governments without the electorate feeling they had to risk any serious consequences. Voters throughout Europe were disillusioned by the political process and the lack of choice traditional parties seemed to offer. At the same time, they harboured fears about the negative effects of globalisation including job losses and economic insecurity. John Palmer argued in favour of continuing the ratification process, pointing to the fact that the Latvian parliament had ratified the Constitutional Treaty on 2 June. The debate around the Constitution had energised the European public – even if certain majorities had rejected the text, it was being discussed and could no longer be dismissed as irrelevant.

At the same time, he thought it unlikely that the Treaty would survive in its present form. To move ahead, a new, more opportune political conjuncture was needed. If and when that came, the “forces of European society” would have to be reassembled to move ahead, as there was clearly no going back to the intergovernmental process, which had been completely discredited.

Arguments for a new Convention

Borrowing an idea by Sylvie Goulard, Associate Research Fellow at CERI (Paris) and lecturer at SciencesPo, Paris, John Palmer advocated the creation of an elected Convention to take decisions on any European Constitution. “The present procedures have shown their bankruptcy.” Overall, one needed to “fight to keep the discussion going.” The next time around, the people needed to given the full responsibility for deciding on the long term constitutional character of the Union. Only with the creation of a much-needed European democratic polity, with real choice offered voters by the European parties (including candidates for the Commission Presidency) could real internal legitimacy be achieved.  At the same time, event this experience was “very pedagogical” for European Heads of State and Government: “They have never had to fight a ‘life and death campaign’ on a Treaty.” He said that he would like to see the Council say that the process used in the past to negotiate treaties had failed to then craft a Treaty with a greater legitimacy.

Antonio Vitorino, former European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs and Vice-President of the EPC Advisory Council, agreed that these two “no” votes needed to be followed by a discussion on the substance of the Treaty. At the same time the political authorities in France and the Netherlands would have to explain their views on the negative outcome and elucidate the reasons behind this particular vote. He cautioned that with these recent developments the Treaty would certainly not come into force on 1 November, 2006, as originally planned. Also, he warned that it would be wrong to assume that because two founding nations had voted against the Treaty, this vote somehow weighed more than a “no” in any other country of the 25-member Union.

The ratification process, he said, was always going to be difficult. Everyone should have expected critical questions to be raised particularly with respect to Part III of the Treaty on the content of EU policies. The Convention, of which he had been a part of, had never been given a mandate to discuss these issues, yet they were the most interesting to the European public. European citizens wanted an economically prosperous Europe, which was socially cohesive and played an active role in the world. At the same time, he cautioned to not make the Constitutional Treaty a scapegoat for a much deeper European malaise. He encouraged the creation of a “new social contract at European level” to benefit from the momentum created through the referenda and to harness this interest in European affairs. Overall, he expressed optimism, that a European Constitution would become a reality in the not too distant future: “We shall overcome some day.”

Sylvie Goulard reflected briefly on the French outcome, noting that the motivations behind the “no” vote in her country varied greatly: 46% of those that had voted down the Constitution believed that it would have increased unemployment in France, while 40% wanted to express their overall discontent. The remainder of the “no” voters had wanted to renegotiate a better Treaty. Overall, the French were supportive of Europe, but many had felt that one could be pro-European and vote against the Treaty: 34% had found the document to be “too liberal.” The French had largely “refused to see that the solutions were in the Constitution.” The fact that a Convention had been called to draft the Constitution had not been sufficient for many voters and had not convinced them that it had not been written by technocrats in Brussels. A fear of ever-continuing enlargement had also prompted voters to cast “no” ballots. People were confused about enlargement and the criteria for expanding the Union. She advocated a clear demarcation of Europe’s natural borders to increase the confidence of European citizens.

European voters were largely asking: “What is the purpose of this European Union.” Politicians had to resolutely respond that the Union was the only answer to an increasingly globalised world – not, in fact, a Trojan horse of globalisation. She warned of the growth in populist rhetoric on the national level in many Member States, which could usher in a true crisis of democracy. She agreed with Mr. Palmer that a key danger in Europe today was the obvious division between elites and the rest of the population. Elites were a necessary societal component but they needed to work in a transparent environment to make their decisions understandable. She also noted that one or two countries should never be able to hold the other Member States hostage. “When you allow countries to vote separately, based on separate national campaigns on what is supposed to be a European Treaty, you have to bear a greater risk that a negative vote will be your answer.”

Mark Kranenburg, EU Correspondent for NRC Handelsblad, agreed with Ms. Goulard that the French and Dutch “no-s” had not been “no-s” against the actual text of the Constitutional Treaty. He agreed with Mr. Palmer’s view of the enormous gap between citizens and their governments. Had the Dutch parliament voted on the Constitution, instead of holding a referendum, there would have been a positive majority of 85%. In the Netherlands, there had been only two campaigns: the campaign against the Treaty and the campaign against the “no” campaign. The government’s campaign tactics had also been questionable, he noted. Prime Minister Balkenende had confused and disoriented people with quotes such as “If we look at Auschwitz, we know why we must accept the European Constitution.” Many Dutch voters had also cast their “no” vote in an effort to express their feelings on the amount of money the Netherlands paid into the EU Budget. Turkish accession had been less of a focal point in the Netherlands, as compared to the discussion in France. At the same time, many Dutch “no” voters had felt they were losing a part of their identity through Europe. Mr. Kranenburg agreed with previous speakers that a solution was likely to take some time. Much of the Dutch vote had been a protest vote: “They were angry because they had never been asked before.”

Closing the Dialogue, Chairwoman Dana Spinant, Editor of the European Voice, thanked participants, noting, “We are at the beginning of a long, difficult process.”