Non & Nee for the European Constitution

But it’s still Ja for the European Project.

Listener: 2 July, 2005.

Keywords: Globalisation & Trade; Political Economy & History;

When New Zealand voted on MMP in 1993, many people said they voted “yes” because the Business Roundtable told them “no”. Whatever their logic, the example illustrates that voters do not necessarily vote on the precise referendum question before them.

So, although the French and the Dutch rejected the proposed European Union constitution, it is not clear what they were actually saying. After all, the EU already has an informal constitution of treaties, regulations and practices. As a rule, continental Europeans like a written “basic law”. The protesters were not rejecting the principle of a formal constitution. Nor were the majority voting against the European Project, the vision of a peaceful united Europe committed to human rights, with economic relations largely regulated by the market.

Some of the Germans with whom I have discussed this – I am writing this while visiting Germany as a guest of the German Government and the Goethe-Institut – consider that the French are not really committed to Europe. They smile when I put to them the French view that Germans are too close to the US, and less committed to a strong, independent Europe offering a counterbalance to the Americans (“led by the French”, some mutter).

Although we might dismiss the “non” as mainly a protest against Jacques Chirac’s government and the state of the French economy, how are we to interpret the “nee”? It is hard to be more European than the Dutch: a small country, collaterally invaded in 1940 during the German attack on France, with a location that makes them a great transport hub. (Many New Zealand exports to Europe go first to Rotterdam.) Were the EU economy to fall apart, the Dutch would be among those who suffered most. The conventional wisdom is the Dutch are uneasy about the enlargement of Europe, especially to Turkey because of cultural differences. But there is something deeper: the direction of the European Project.

The postwar Western European consensus was for the “social market economy”, where the government was closely involved in the regulation of the economy for social ends. In contrast, some of the new members are more oriented towards an “individual market economy”, where national objectives are defined in individualistic terms. (It is also sometimes called the “liberal” or “ultra-liberal” market economy, but the “liberal” refers to market transactions, not human rights. Social marketeers are just as politically liberal.)

New Zealanders would recognise that the Rogernomes attempted to impose the individualistic option in the 80s and 90s. Before 1984, we had been at the social market end of the spectrum, albeit in an extremely clumsy form. Since 1999, we have been shifting back towards a rational version of the social market economy.

The proposed written constitution does not prescribe a social or individualistic direction. However, the social market economies of the EU seem to be undermined, particularly because of the recent enlargement.

Some Germans told me they thought Germans would have also voted against the proposed constitutions. But had the referendum question been in two sections, “Do you support the European Project?” and “Do you support the proposed constitution?”, there would have been a “Ja” for the first and “Nein” for the second. That is probably what the Dutch and French think, too.

Germany’s official commitment to the new EU constitution came from its Parliament. In contrast, the US constitution was ratified by assemblies of local voters, who demanded there be added the first 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights to reflect their personal interests.

The difference illustrates the weakness of the development of the European Project. It has been driven by the European elite with little contribution from ordinary people, who feel left out. Being told “it will be good for you” is not very comforting when sometimes it manifestly is not. Not surprisingly, when asked for their commitment via referenda, European people do not show the overwhelming enthusiasm the elite demand. That they were surprised by the voters, and have no Plan B, tells us just how out of touch with the grass roots the elite is.