France’s EU Vote: Americans Would Be Wrong To Celebrate

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

May 31, 2005

Translated from French by the Center on the United States and Europe

The French “no” made the front pages of American newspapers yesterday, but it has received little political reaction. The country was on holiday for Memorial Day, which honors American soldiers killed in combat. The New York Times had judged that the vote “could signal an abrupt halt to the expansion and unification of Europe,” recalling that Jacques Chirac saw the EU “counter-balancing the United States.” For the Los Angeles Times, the result of the vote reflects, “a repudiation of French President Jacques Chirac , (?) fear of a loss of the French identity, faltering economies in EU states and the perceived arrogance of leaders.” Even before the referendum, these reasons had brought Bill Kristol, editor of the neo-conservative magazine Weekly Standard, to write, for once, “Vive la France!” Philip Gordon, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at The Brookings Institution, responds to Le Figaro’s questions.

Should Americans celebrate the French no?

No, on the contrary, I think they would be wrong to celebrate. Of course, certain people are thrilled that Jacques Chirac was dealt a blow and that the idea of Europe becoming a counter-weight to the United States was weakened. But I think they are wrong. It is a defeat not only for a counter-weight Europe, but also for a strong Europe, partner to the United States. I think that this will have a price in that for at least the next two years, Europe will be introverted, absorbed by its own institutional problems and under constant political pressure.

Certain people think that the European constitution is contrary to the interests of the United States and NATO?

The founding elements of Europe’s common foreign and security policy have been in place for decades, and they are not hostile to NATO. We must understand that European countries are going to continue to lead the foreign and defense policies that are in their interests. This is not a treaty that is going to change this fundamental fact. When NATO can be useful, the European countries will support it, in other instances, they will not. It is a myth to believe that the health of NATO depends on the sickness of Europe.

Do you believe that the Bush administration shares this point of view?

I think that the Administration is divided. It is clear that certain people fear a unified Europe and are celebrating the death of the constitutional treaty. But others believe that we need a partner and that out interest resides in a European Union that is strong rather than weak. The Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Deputy Robert Zoellick have clearly taken a position in favor of European integration. They have convinced the President to visit the Commission in Brussels in February. Others, like Vice-President Dick Cheney and the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, do not hide their worry of a united Europe that could oppose the United States.

Are there Americans celebrating due to the blow to President Chirac?

Of course, there is a lot of bitterness with regard to Chirac, particularly among those who supported the war in Iraq. They are happy to see him weakened, in France and in Europe. But this also means a victory for Le Pen, Villiers, Bové, the Communist Party, anti-globalization and all those who want a Europe less open and less free-market. It is ironic to see Americans in such company.

What interests do Americans have in Europe?

It is less the political integration of Europe that is important to the United States than the willingness of European countries to share its goals. Our interest is in a Europe equipped with a market economy, that is a commercial partner, that opens itself to new members, particularly to the East, and that supports American efforts in the world, in the Middle East and in Asia. We therefore see that the rejection of the Constitution is bad news for us. It is a victory for the anti-globalization, anti-free market, anti-capitalist camps, an economic set-back; it is a victory for the opponents of enlargement, not only for new potential members, like Ukraine or Turkey, but also for recently integrated member states. All of this means that it is not in American interests.

Does the United States realize that enlargement without integration risks sinking the European boat?

We must keep this in mind. The United States supports enlargement in part because it costs us nothing. It is easy for us to be generous with European structural funds or with the free circulation of workers?

Do you think that something good can come out of the French vote?

It is possible. The vote will force leaders and the public to hold a real debate on integration. But I do not expect a more ambitious outcome. The message of the people is that they are not ready to go so far.