Only thirteen months ago the mood across Europe was so different, as fireworks lit up the skies to mark the accession of 10 new countries to the European Union - overwhelmingly former Communist countries from Central Europe. Today, Europe is under a cloud, its elites shocked by ‘Nos' in France and The Netherlands. These defeats for the European Constitution have huge implications for the United States, not only because they come from two of the founding (six) nations, but also because they exemplify the previously muffled polarisation of opinion within the 25 member states.
The French ‘No' was not the same as the Dutch. Spain, whose people voted ‘Yes' in their referendum had their own special reasons for doing so and the British, if they were ever given the opportunity, would have almost certainly voted ‘No' (unfortunately) for reasons completely antithetical to the French and many other members of the earlier ‘Group of 15'. Thus, while the French seek to protect the ‘French model', the Dutch complain about their own austerity measures not being reciprocated by the other members of the Eurozone, the Spanish are anxious to retain existing EU grants and the British yearn for a Union stressing trade - the oft-quoted ‘Anglo-Saxon model'. Once again it would appear that Constitutions have become a repository for struggles over ideology, rather than about basic principles and, in this post-Jeffersonian age, compromise.
I can appreciate the temptation of many US citizens to laugh at this knot that the French, in particular, have thrust the European Union into, but any mirth should be very swiftly tempered. The United States is finding the world an increasingly lonely place to be the world's sole superpower and it desperately needs a strong Europe to act as its main partner and (trusted) friend. However, and this is the key, not as a diplomatic rival, as Paris and some other sections of Europe's elite would prefer, but instead as a ‘younger brother'.
The accession, last year, of countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Lithuania who so bravely, after 1989, fought off Soviet tyranny, ought to have begun the process of solidifying a more Atlanticist European Union. This would have been bolstered by the presence of powerful US-friendly political constituencies in Britain, Germany and Italy. The accession of Bulgaria, Romania, other countries in the Balkans and, perhaps one day, nations like Ukraine and Georgia, would have not only cemented the so-long dreamed of unification of Europe, but guaranteed that the EU would not have sought to become a rival - tempted, occasionally, to flirt with Moscow and Beijing. I am not suggesting that the French and Dutch ‘Nos' have scuppered the opportunity for Europe to become the prime partner for the United States, but they have ensured that just when Washington will have most depended upon their focus and assistance, that, once again, Europe will be agonizing from within, rather than helping to liberalize the world from without.
France is now the odd-one-out in Europe. Whether it is agricultural protection (often justified as some kind of European subsidy to keep the country looking beautiful), the greater regulation of labour markets or shutting the doors to greater competition, an overly large section of the French electorate and its political classes seem incapable of adjusting to the new realities of 21st century globalised commerce. Of course, this is not to suggest that such a view does not have its voices in the other member states (Britain included), only that Paris (with the assistance of its people) appears to have stamped itself as the ideological standard-bearer. This is a recipe for Europe, economically, being rendered increasingly marginal and, potentially, the US having to look for other partners to fill the void left by the ‘old continent'.
To be fair, the more sober-minded, ought to admit that, as in any family, this was ‘an argument waiting to happen'. The tensions and rivalries may have been able to be limited, but the pressure within the EU has been building for some time. The solution, however, is not to abandon the project, but as swiftly as possible conclude and see the process through. Yet, this will not be easy. Drafting the text of the Constitution was not easy. The Italian Presidency (during the second half of 2003) was crushed by obstruction from the Spanish and Polish governments over voting weights. Indeed, one might say that it was only alleviated by the change in government in Madrid. Now, is it clear what the French have voted against and would President Chirac or the left be willing, even themselves, to accommodate the verdict of their people, let alone the view of anyone else?
The ready solution of many is to present a heavily slimmed down version of the existing Constitution, and make it far more recognisable to a typical national one. Yet, the European Union is not a (federal) country like the United States, Germany or Nigeria. The road it is taking is not yet complete and it has not yet finally decided, and may (actually: should) not be able to for some time, quite what type of entity it wishes to become. Indeed, it may never reach that moment, so long as the much-vaunted international personality that it was about to acquire remains secondary to that of its member states. In this sense, therefore, and with the benefit of hindsight perhaps what has been wrong in the whole exercise has been to call it a Constitution, rather than simply the latest treaty to succeed the original Treaty of Rome and, lately, Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice. Not that these were not without their own ratification ‘banana-skins': remember the Danes (over Maastricht) and the Irish (over Nice).
Full participation and democracy cannot be perfect. The European Union is, thus, like a huge piece of marble being sculpted by 25 different sculptors - only that some of them have a more established fame and are, therefore, disdainful of the remainder, and they cannot agree on whether the outcome should be a god or a goddess. Meanwhile, Washington can only sit helplessly and observe.
The European Constitution was to have advanced the common foreign, security and defence policy of the Union. The executive work of the organisation and its policy-direction was to have been assisted by the creation of a President of the Council and a putative Foreign Minister. Some of this, amidst the squabbles that will now ensue, may be under threat. Consequently, it may be some time before any US President has, at the very least, a first phone call if never one. All of this is tragic at a time of continued instability in Iraq, uncertainty more generally in the Middle East and the Arab/Muslim world, and continued (and very serious) worries about terrorism and nuclear proliferation. While others, particularly Australia and Japan, have been doing a fine job in the nearly four years since 9/11, this is not a moment for Europe to withdraw. In the end, I do not believe it will and it may even come out of this whole episode stronger, but Washington, as well as Canberra and Tokyo, do need to be firm in their demand for Europe to be supportive, active and present.
The French and Dutch ‘Nos' are a boon for those around the world that seek to weaken our sense of security and defeat our values. The United States needs partners, not rivals. Europe should not be intimidated into diluting/distancing itself from alliances that simply work. The coming months will, therefore, require enormous vigilance from these capitals and the best wishes of Washington. I have no doubt that the forces of prejudice will not succeed, but the European Union is, without question, about to enter its greatest period of uncertainty since its creation. Now is the time for good argument to prevail.
Dr Tim Potier is Assistant Professor of International Law & Human Rights at Intercollege (University College) in Nicosia.