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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

04 June 2005

Constitutional post-mortem

With the death of the European Constitution comes a moment for pause and reflection—a time to recognize that many Europeans have been disenchanted with their leaders and are no longer willing to follow them blindfolded; a time to understand that as Europe becomes more integrated, further integration will become progressively harder to accomplish; and a time to acknowledge that Europe needs to explain its purpose and sell itself to its citizens.

Those who rejected the Constitution spoke with many voices but they echoed one melody: that the political elite in Brussels is growing more powerful and unaccountable, that the European demos should have been given the right to debate the future of Europe, and that the European Union is no longer an unqualified positive.

This popular backlash had been brewing for a while. In successive European elections, fewer and fewer people bothered to vote, diffusing ever more widely Brussels’ legitimacy; meanwhile politicians singing the anti-immigration and anti-openness tune were gaining prominently in Austria, the Netherlands, and France, and quietly in other corners of Europe.

For liberal Euroskeptics, the rejection of the treaty can be received with mild enthusiasm because the forces that were summoned to defeat it can prove worse than the treaty itself. It would be Europe’s loss if the anger at the flaws of the European project were guised in the name of nationalism and mercantilism: in the name of anti-Europe.

All the while, Europeanists may rejoice—the rejection of the treaty can be a blessing in disguise: better for popular anger to burst out on a treaty that matters so little than to have been expressed in a treaty that really transformed Europe. It serves the European cause that so much passion has been directed at so little effect. Given that the public hardly rebuffed the novelties in the Constitution, but rather an abstraction of Europe, it is possible to accept some of the treaty’s better provisions in the future in a more mild version or less historic occasion.

Even more, the muddled and confused debate in France over the Constitution shows how poorly written the document was. The Constitutional Convention could have tackled Europe’s complex problems and reconciled the contradictory expectations that people have of Europe. Instead, it produced a document that tried to compromise—a document that said everything and ended up saying nothing about Europe’s values, priorities, ambitions, and limits.

The popular reaction to the Constitution illuminates another truth about Europe: that as Europe becomes more integrated, it will become progressively harder to integrate further. After World War II, removing trade barriers brought enormous benefits; as Europe is more interconnected, the gains from further integration are found in unpopular and politically controversial areas—liberalization of agriculture, variation in labor standards, trade in commercial and other services.

For most of its history, the European Union survived because its logic of elite decision making brought benefits with few costs. This is no longer true. The euro, the enlargement to the East, and the Lisbon Agenda which calls for further liberalization all suggest that many people no longer equate all things European with a positive-sum attitude.

At the very least, now would be a time for a more honest national and pan-European debate about where Europe stands, about what needs to be done to drive integration further, and about whether national publics are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to reap further benefits from the common market and European integration.

It would be tempting to think that as the task of integration becomes more complicated, the solution lies in more aloof leadership, more technocracy and less public consultation. But the democratic expectation and culture of the European peoples cannot be suppressed. If Europe is to ever find itself on solid ground, it needs to be accepted on its merits, not because people were too busy or confused to understand what Europe was really all about.

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