Five years ago, on May 29 2005, French voters rejected the constitutional treaty. The Dutch did the same days later. Politicians and pundits panicked. Had the EU lost touch with the people?
Last December, the Union's leaders ratified the Lisbon Treaty - which looked curiously like the constitution. They then set about fighting for influence in the new Brussels. Panic returned. How could Europe's elites be so selfish? Could they ever regain trust?
This excitable commentary could have gone on indefinitely had the Greek financial debacle not given Brussels a proper problem to talk about. Faced with Europe's latest crisis of confidence, it has been hard not to wonder how events would have unfolded if the French had voted differently in 2005.Would the EU be a sunnier, more solid Union?
Maybe it would. But it is equally possible - and perhaps even probable - that if France and the Netherlands had voted in favour of the constitution, the EU would have entered a period of political crisis far more severe than the ups-and-downs of the last five years.
That is because a French Oui and Dutch Ja would not have marked the end of debates about the constitution. Instead, they would have signaled the start of a vicious referendum campaign in Britain that could have altered EU politics permanently.
Other countries also still had to vote on the constitution. The outcome looked very dicey in Denmark and the Czech Republic. But the political calculus was clear. If some smaller member states voted No while Britain said Yes, the constitution would get through in the end. If Britain voted No, a much more radical solution might be necessary.
Having spent much of 2004 and early 2005 chewing over polling data on British attitudes to the constitution, I am pretty sure it was on course to be rejected. The pro-constitution lobby included some awfully nice people - but they were just too nice to win. Some expected then Prime Minister Tony Blair to revitalise the campaign, but his grip on the country was waning.
If the then prime minister could not inspire the British to embrace the constitution, some politicians in France and Germany thought they could terrify them into doing so. By spring 2005, there was muttering about an "exit strategy" or, rather more credibly, a "Norwegian option" (leaving the EU but remaining in the European Economic Area) for Britain. This would have got a lot louder before a referendum.
Had Britain ended up teetering on the edge of a No vote in the spring or summer of 2006 - the likely poll dates - it would have been treated rather as Greece has been this year. It is easy to imagine a lot of talk about how German (or French, or Dutch) voters could not be expected to allow one trouble-making country to thwart their political dreams.
There would have been other strident voices in the mix. The Bush administration, yet to plunge into the grim torpor of its final years, might well have intervened vocally on behalf of its British allies. Warnings from Washington about Britain's essential role in EU-US relations would have been counter-productive, reopening the wounds of Iraq and pushing France and Germany to form a united front as defenders of the constitution.
Rather than sinking into political decline, then President Jacques Chirac would surely have repeated his Gaullist rhetoric of 2002-2003 - and perhaps even chosen to risk a third run for the Elysée.
Although bent on restoring pragmatic ties with Washington, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel would have had little choice but to stick close to France. She and Chirac would also have broken completely with the British Conservatives over their aggressive advocacy for a No vote.
If Britain eventually rejected the constitution, it is unlikely that Tony Blair could have stayed in office, leaving Gordon Brown to take the reins of an exhausted Labour Party. Brown might have had to call an early election - with the Tories the guaranteed winners.
It would have been a sour victory. With Britain's European status in doubt, the pound would have plummeted while City bankers looked for nice places to live near Frankfurt.
With tensions mounting among the EU's biggest members and the US, efforts to resolve problems on Europe's periphery - like Kosovo's status and relations with Serbia - would have lost steam fast. Talks on NATO enlargement to include Ukraine and Georgia, only just starting, would have been dropped entirely as transatlantic relations stagnated.
As for EU enlargement (at least beyond the Balkans) it was dead before the French voted. Trying to sell the constitution, Jacques Chirac offered his electorate a veto over Turkey's entry into the Union by promising referendums before admitting more new members.
A divided EU would have been hampered in its ability to act further afield. The foul mood in Brussels could have meant that there was less willingness to send significant reinforcements to Afghanistan (a process that was still at a fairly early stage in 2005).
Bickering over the constitution, Britain, France and Germany would also have struggled to negotiate on behalf of the Union with Iran on its nuclear activities - good news for those inside the Bush administration who saw the EU as an obstacle to a strike on Tehran.
But no crisis lasts forever. Eventually, some deal would have been worked out that allowed the constitution to go ahead and Britain to carve out a semidetached role in Europe.
If this had been achieved in 2006 or 2007, where would matters stand in early 2010? The constitution's decision-making structures should have been reasonably well established by now (although there would still be 27 European commissioners, as there was a delay to 2014 on the clause shrinking the number of portfolios). The EU Foreign Minister Javier Solana might be planning a well-earned retirement, having mediated a peace deal that ended the sporadic hostilities that followed the 2008 US air raids on Iran's nuclear sites.
The Union would also be evaluating the new structures' performance during their first major test: the 2008 financial crisis. This would have put the first European Council president, whose name we can only guess at, on the spot. If he or she had persuaded the EU's leaders to hang together during the crisis, the constitution would be declared a success. If they had refused to be corralled, however, there would be a new bout of EU hand-wringing.
Some economic analysts might be asking if the response could have been better had Gordon Brown, with his strong grasp of international economics, been involved. But Brown would already be long gone from frontline politics. Nicolas Sarkozy might still be waiting for Jacques Chirac, or Chirac's ally Dominique de Villepin, to leave the stage.
There would be some positive trends to report. Five years of political trauma could have inspired European voters, previously disengaged from Brussels, to turn out in greater numbers in the 2009 European elections. In Britain, a brief plunge into hardcore Euroscepticism might well have been followed by a cold realisation of the EU's importance.
But it is hard not to conclude that the French and Dutch voters did the EU a favour by halting the constitution before it began to tear the EU apart. The EU has experienced five years of drift - but that seems preferable to five years of diplomatic bloodletting.
Many readers may feel nostalgic for the constitution. A big battle around passing it might have resolved some fundamental tensions that still haunt the EU. It is always nice to imagine political battles when you do not have to fight them. It would be fascinating to know how far France and Germany would have pushed Britain over the constitution.
But, as one EU expert remarked when I described this article, "What didn't happen is all very intriguing, but Jesus, I have enough trouble working out what actually did happen...".
Richard and Thomas Klau have recorded a podcast about the French Non vote, taking their time machine back to see what Europe might have looked like if they had voted Oui instead. Click here for the audio.
This piece was originally published in E!Sharp.
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