EU Meets Democracy

Posted: May 31, 2005 12:00 AM

French President Jacques Chirac forgot the first rule of European Union politics: ?Don?t consult the voters (it will only encourage them).? For that, he suffered a crushing defeat on Sunday, when 55 percent of French voters delivered a stirring ?non? to the proposed new EU constitution, potentially ending the EU project as we have known it. See what mischief comes from allowing pesky public opinion to have too large a say in EU affairs?

To this point, the EU has become steadily more powerful on the basis of bureaucratic aggrandizement and elite bullying. After the French vote, EU worthies lined up to dismiss it. Josep Borrell, president of the EU parliament, said, ?France decides only for France.? But the constitution is supposed to be approved by all 25 EU member nations. Martin Schulz, a member of the parliament, agreed: ?We respect the result of this democratic vote. But [there?s always a ?but?] French voters voted against the opportunity to create a better Europe.? And so the implication hangs in the air that the vote is illegitimate and cannot stand.

This is the EU way. It was practically built on reversing inconvenient popular votes. In 1992, Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty, the agreement to change the European Community ? a common market ? into the more ambitious European Union. Since this result was considered unacceptable, a revote was held shortly afterward, and the treaty passed. Ireland rejected the Nice Treaty, which would have expanded the EU from 15 to 25 nations in 2001, and then accepted it in a revote in October 2002. Revotes are never deemed necessary when a pro-EU measure passes.

Such a ?do over? is already being discussed in France, the heart of the EU. Sunday?s vote was a little like Texas voting against President George W. Bush. French attitudes have been implanted into the very DNA of the EU, including the bureaucratic centralization and anti-Americanism. Chirac could plausibly argue that France would fulfill its national destiny by ratifying the constitution, the drafting of which was led by ? of course ? a former French president.

The voters had different ideas. They rejected the ungainly document, which is as thick as a trashy summer novel, for a dog?s breakfast of right-wing and left-wing reasons. Many ?non? voters opposed the ?Anglo-Saxon? free-market economic policies that would accompany further EU integration. But even an Anglo-Saxon can find the French public?s verdict exhilarating, a thumb-in-the-eye revolt against their betters, who didn?t realize the mistake in allowing them to vote until it was too late.

The EU is meant to smother just such populist outbursts. Only the unelected European Commission ? a collection of bureaucrats from each of the member states ? can propose legislation, giving it a preemptive veto over the work of the European parliament. The parliament itself has limited powers, and can only pass advisory opinions on many issues. The parliament?s claim to represent anyone in the first place is tenuous since its elections routinely draw a pathetic turnout.

The crisis brought on by the French vote represents an opportunity. The EU vision has always been to unify the 25 members into one European super-state with common foreign and defense policies and to make it a geopolitical rival to America. Now, U.S. policymakers should encourage a two-tiered EU. The center ? France, Germany and Belgium ? should be tightly united in a federation. The rest should be loosely affiliated in a glorified free-trade area, thus preserving the ability of Britain and countries in Eastern Europe to maintain their distinct (and markedly more sympathetic to the U.S.) foreign policies.

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote a poem mocking the Soviets for complaining about the skepticism with which East Germans regarded them: ?Would it not be easier for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?? Surely that is the option that the EU masters would prefer in the wake of the French vote. Democracy will take some getting used to.

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