The crisis we missed

29 May is the 5th anniversary of the French ?non? to the EU constitution. The Dutch followed with a ?nee? a few days later. Richard Gowan paints a bleak picture of the Europe that might have emerged had the French and Dutch backed the EU constitution in 2005, and asks: Will the EU never be happy?

Senior Policy Fellow




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…”.

For more…




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

 

 

 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

Senior Policy Fellow