U.S. Has Big Stake in Europe’s Constitution

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 17, 2005

Opinion polls show that the French public may well reject the new draft constitution for the European Union in a national referendum on May 29, and some of France’s critics in the US are finding it hard to conceal their glee. A French rejection of the constitution would not only be a slap in the face to President Jacques Chirac, so often a source of frustration in Washington, but it would derail what many Americans see as an attempt to build up Europe as a counterweight to US power. If the French do indeed shoot down the constitution—which needs ratification by all 25 EU members to come into force—even some leading administration officials, are likely to cheer.

The original idea behind endowing the EU with a constitution was to make the Union more understandable to its citizens, and the proposed text of some several hundred pages regrettably falls far short of that goal. But on balance the constitution would make the EU a more effective partner for the US. It would help make EU foreign policy somewhat more coherent—and outward-looking—by streamlining EU institutions and replacing the rotating EU presidency with a standing president and foreign minister. The document would also give the EU the power to deal more effectively with homeland security issues such as asylum policy and immigration. Notwithstanding some neoconservative fantasies in the US, in no way would the constitution undermine the Nato alliance or oblige US allies such as Britain and Poland to follow France and Germany on issues like Iraq. America should indeed worry about its future ability to win over European allies—but not because of anything in the EU constitution.

But Americans should hold their applause. In fact, a French rejection of the constitution would not only be a crisis for Europe, but a real setback for the US and beyond. At a time when the US desperately needs a strong, united and outward-looking European partner, a French No would produce the opposite. It would seriously undermine prospects for EU enlargement to include key American friends such as Turkey and Ukraine. It could lead to divisive, unworkable proposals for an EU “core group” that would exclude US allies in Britain and Eastern Europe. And it would be a major political victory for the anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation activists who form a core part of the rejectionist camp.

More consequential than the failure to bring this modest treaty into force would be the political consequences of its rejection. If the French say No, it is an illusion to think they will simply be asked to vote again later, as the Danes and Irish did after voters rejected previous EU treaties. In those cases the EU could allow Denmark and Ireland to “opt-out” of new activities such as European defence or the common currency, but that is impossible with a constitution that proposes no such activities.

Neither will it be easy to avoid finicky EU publics and have national parliaments implement various aspects of the constitution piecemeal, for example, voting rules one day and foreign policy six months later. The text of the constitution was a finely balanced compromise among 25 nations; it is hard to see them accepting parts of it, when their agreement to those parts depended on other parts. And French leaders would be running a great political danger if they seek to implement parts of a treaty their public has just rejected in toto.

Instead, the result of a French No would be the sort of disunity and political paralysis that makes the current EU such an awkward partner for other countries to deal with. With French politics thrown into disarray and Mr Chirac discredited, major initiatives would be put on hold until the next French presidential election in 2007. Instead of a new EU president and foreign minister to deal with, the rotating presidency would endure; after Luxembourg passes the baton to Britain this summer, it would be passed to Austria at the end of the year and then to Finland six months after that. Membership negotiations with Turkey, scheduled to begin next October, would most likely be put off, thereby encouraging a nasty, anti-western backlash in Turkey, which rightly feels it has met the EU’s criteria.

And during all this, when American officials call their European counterparts to talk about issues of transatlantic concern including Iraq, Iran, terrorism and Afghanistan, they will be put on hold, as the Europeans occupy themselves with internal debates about “qualified majority voting”, the size of the European Commission and “structured co-operation”.

There is still some prospect that the recent swell of opposition to the treaty can be reversed. France’s European partners have begun to lobby hard, which might help increase voter turnout among pro-European French who would not otherwise bother to vote. Also, a range of French politicians from across the political spectrum—from Mr Chirac’s rival on the left, Lionel Jospin, to his rival on the right, Nicolas Sarkozy—are now actively campaigning, reminding the French that the vote is about the EU, not a referendum on Mr Chirac.

But it will be an uphill struggle. Most of the No camp appears to oppose the treaty not so much for its provisions (indeed most French seem to have little idea what the treaty actually says) but as a way of voicing their opposition on issues ranging from free-markets, globalisation and Turkish membership of the EU to Mr Chirac’s long hold on power, the US, immigration, and either too much or too little political integration. It is hard to make the case for a treaty when there are such diverse reasons people oppose it—and when many of the arguments against it have little to do with the treaty itself.

A public lobbying campaign by the Bush administration in favour of Europe’s Constitution would undoubtedly do more harm than good, especially in France. But Americans should not be afraid to declare their support for a strong and integrated Europe. If the French do manage to ratify the constitution, the US should publicly welcome that result. US support might have a more constructive effect in the Netherlands, Poland and Britain, three other EU states where the outcome of forthcoming referendums on the constitution seem far from certain. Americans who hope we never get to that point—and only want to see a failure for the French—should be careful what they wish for.