Monday, April 25, 2005

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What happens if the French say "non"?

When we last left the French referendum on the EU constitution, President Jacques Chirac had bungled a TV appearance designed to bolster support for a "oui" vote.

In today's Financial Times, John Thornhill reports that France's neighbors are warning of the apocalypse if France says non.

A French rejection of the European Union's constitutional treaty would result in the “fall of Europe,” Romano Prodi, former president of the European Commission, warned on Sunday.

His words came as the Yes campaign stepped up its increasingly desperate search for a strategy to turn the tide of public opinion ahead of the May 29 vote. In the starkest warning yet of the consequences for the EU if French voters reject the treaty Mr Prodi who was in office when it was drawn up told a French newspaper: “There would be no more Europe. We will pass through a long period of crisis.

“The problem will not only be a catastrophe for France, but the fall of Europe.”

Mr Prodi said the treaty was not perfect but was the best compromise possible. “It is impossible for me to imagine a French No. I have always thought of France as a pillar of Europe.

“A No would be catastrophic for Europe, from a social and economic point of view, not only political. And that is the whole contradiction: everybody knows very well that there is no Europe without France, yet France does not realise the chance it has with Europe. She should reflect on that because an isolated France would be very weak,” he said....

However, the latest opinion polls in France suggest the No camp is consolidating its lead with 58 per cent support. They also suggest that a growing number of French voters are playing down the fallout from a No vote.

The fact that articles like this one and this Charlemagne column in the Economist are being printed suggests that experts are taking the likelihood of a non vote very seriously.

Of course, this begs the question -- would a rejection of the EU constitution really mean the end of the EU project? I'd like to hear from the Europeanists in the audience, but this strikes me as a gross exaggeration. The European project has managed to generate a common market, a common Court of Justice, the euro, Schengenland, an increasingly assertive European parliament, and even the faint stirrings of a common foreign and defense policy -- all using the current set of legal and political arrangements. None of these will disappear if the French say non (a good indicator of its significance will be to see what happens to the value of the euro as the probability of a non vote approaches one. If it actually starts to fall in value, then I'm wrong).

The "end of Europe" claim by Prodi is an extreme version of the "bicycle theory" of international integration, which says that if there is any slowdown in integration, the process starts to wobble like a slow bicycle, eventually toppling under its own weight. This line was also used after the Maastricht accord was signed in the early nineties. I suspect that warnings like Prodi's will, if anything, further turn off people against what elites tell them about the European Union.

Does this mean the EU would just sail along after a French rejection? Non, it would not, but I'm not sure that the ensuing difficulties would be any more severe than, say, what the World Trade Organization experienced after the 1999 Battle in Seattle. The EU will live on.

What will be interesting to see is whether the rest of Europe would interpret a negative vote as an actual rejection of the planned future of the EU or explain it away as a rejection of Jacques Chirac and nothing more.

posted by Dan on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM


I'd like to hear from the Europeanists in the audience, but this strikes me as a gross exaggeration. The European project has managed to generate a common market, a common Court of Justice, the euro, Schengenland, an increasingly assertive European parliament, and even the faint stirrings of a common foreign and defense policy -- all using the current set of legal and political arrangements.

Yeah, I pretty much agree. When you take into account that less than 100 years ago, countries in Europe all wanted to destroy each other, the progress made so far has been pretty astounding.

And even if EU integration stalls for a while, the EU still has a common market and a common currency- again, pretty remarkable for a continent that saw two World Wars in the 20th century.

posted by: Brad R. on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

Canadians are familiar with political elites warning that collapse is inevitable if constitutional changes are not approved by the electorate.

In this case, the Cassandrism seems particularly odd. The probability that the British (at least) will reject the Constitution already approaches 1. So if the French reject it, this will just pre-empt discourse a year or two from now about the Anglo-Continental split and the damage it will do to the European project.

posted by: Gareth on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

Hi Dan,

So very glad you asked.

Prodi's claim is, if I may quote myself, arrant nonsense.

More at the link.

posted by: Doug on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

A non vote wouldn't crush the European movement towards "one europe". Historically, the French have always opposed the movement towards this ideal. Without their support, Europeans still managed to create the Common Market and other significant achievements on the path towards consolidation. What a non vote will do is bring Europeans to their senses and crush the overly idealistic dream of "one europe" and replace it with the more realistic vision of a Europe composed of nation-states united in purpose and not government.

posted by: Matt Letten on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

What are you talking about Matt? Does the name Jacques Delors mean anything to you?

posted by: Clark on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

What we're seeing in France at the moment is a relatively common occurrence all across Europe. When a government displeases the majority of the citizens, voters usually choose to retaliate by voting against government-sponsored referenda. An excellent example of this is the two referenda held in Ireland on the ratification of the Nice treaty. The Irish government were in the midst of a crisis in the health service at the time of the first referendum, as well as facing growing discontent over the handling of the sale of state-owned bodies. As a result of a superb campaign by the "No" side, the treaty was narrowly defeated 54% to 46%, with a 35% turnout.

The government's response? Lot's of fluff about the public not being informed enough about the issues at hand, threats of serious consequences to the Irish economy, and a swift scheduling of a new vote on the treaty. The second vote saw a 48% turnout and a "Yes" vote of 63%.

These sorts of voter protests have been especially commonon in France over the past two decades, perhaps as a result of the reliance of successive governments there in promoting a strong social partnership agenda: when things go wrong in the French social model (which they often do), voters strike back by opposing the government.

Prodi's remarks are obvious scaremongering. May 29 will come, the French will vote "Non," and a way around will be found sooner rather than later.

posted by: davidoff on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

Prodi is a prime BSer. Even as President of the EU Commission, he was distracted by his plotting to succeed Berlusconi, and now is probably just looking for something to say to get in the news, as Silvio hobbles towards a general election. So I share the scepticism of the previous commenters about this prediction.

posted by: P O'Neill on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

Oh, Please.

If the "elite" doesn't get the vote it
wants this time, it will simply run
another ballot in a few years time.

The "elite" will cancel some popular
programs and, 'Hey Presto', Hoi Poloi
votes "correctly".

Just like here in the states. When
the School Board loses the tax increase
referendum, they threaten to cancel the
Football program. Next time around
the referendum wins big time.

All the money goes to the Teacher's Union
of course. You don't think the Football
Players - the slaves doing all the work -
get to see any of it, do you?

posted by: Ted on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

Hi -

The idea of a unified Europe isn't dead, it's just that even the French public is rejecting the absurdity of a constitution written by the technocrat, for the technocrat and of the technocrat.

You must realize that there are at least two Europes (besides the very real Old and New): the digustingly corrupt, incompetent and unenlightened Technocrat Europe of the European Parliament and Commission - anyone willing to take bets on when the next Commission has to resign due to corruption? - and the real Europe of plain old folks suffering under high taxes, high unemployment and poor education.

The technocrats are deathly afraid of this real Europe awakening: they are the Democrats of Europe, condescending to the common man and arrogant beyond words.

When the referendum comes and the technocratic dream crashes into the dust, it'll be the best thing that could happen to Europe, especially if it rattles some of its citizens into a semblance of political activity that concentrates on getting people jobs and improving living conditions, rather than political correctness and socialist utopias.


posted by: John F. Opie on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

Prodi is , of course, scaremongering. And yes, he has his eye on his italian political profile and the elections next year.

If France rejects the Constitution this will cause all sorts of practical organisational problems , as the constitution introduces a number of changes in the institutional working arrangements to cope with the addition of ten new member states.

So it would be awkward. But the end of Europe ? Hardly. Without the constitution we will just muddle on with the old Nice Treaty - messy, untidy and not really very workable in an EU of 25 member states - but that's life. Moreover, muddling through has been something the EU is rather used to.

It would of course also be rather politically embarrassing for the French, and raises all sorts of questions as to where the supposed Franco-German "axis" that some people think drives the EU is heading. But that in itself is no bad thing. It's about time that vision of Europe was reassessed.

As for the last comment by Mr Opie, on "disgustingly corrupt, incompetent and unenlightened technocrats of the Commission" - well - as a British Commission official who has worked both in the UK government and Brussels (for 7 years) I would beg to differ.

In my experience the vast majority of officials here are highly capable, multi-lingual (usually 3 languages, sometimes four or more), and often with one or more graduate degrees. Some of the most talented people I have ever worked with are here.

Of course - that doesn't mean that EU policies are always intelligent or desirable. Just as policies that US government officials work on in Washington are not always intelligent or desirable. We all work within political constraints. Fact of life.

It might be worth pointing out that any legislation the Commission proposes has to be agreed by 25 member states (and in some cases the EU parliament - depending on the issue) before it becomes law. So while it is not unreasonable to argue that the EU is in some sense an "elite" project, there are plenty of democratic checks and balances.

posted by: rjw on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

I think it is pretty clear that they will just keep voting until they get the required result.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

Tell you what; THe best comment of the morning comes from "The Astute Pundit" who suggests that Iraq will have a working constitution before the EU does.

And doesn't that just say it all?

posted by: Bithead on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

Well, your post is a good one from a European's perspective.

One factual remark. The 58% poll you quoted was in my personal opinion biased by the fact that the question regarding the referendum came directly after questions regarding the popularity of both Chirac and Raffarin (the prime minister). As Raffarin is presently as popular in France as Chirac was in the United States circa March 2003, you can imagine that the referendum answer may contain bias. This is elementary polling theory.

From looking in depth at serious polling on the subject, I gain the impression that following the surge of the No vote opinion during March, intentions have broadly stabilised, with a no vote intention between 50% and 55% and with the almost daily fluctuations close to entirely explained by massive fluctuations of voting intentions of young adults aged 18 to 25 (the no vote there has swung inside a single week from 33% to 66% to 50% according to one, usually good, polling institute !). The turn-out in this category of the population is anyway very low in all elections. Whithin this trend, there appears to be gradual polarisation on the issue between right and left. The honest conclusion, importantly, is that the race is not a foregone conclusion, the yes vote could still win.

Next, I am a person who deeply admires Prodi for his amazing achievements in qualifying Italy for EMU. His defeat and subsequent departure for Brussels were caused by a brilliant left-wing plotter if somewhat mediocre policy-maker. I believe that he will likely do very well if he gets to run Italy again, which is very possible. Still, I think that Romano Prodi may be a little melodramatic here in the cause of helping the pro-yes camp in France. Reports of the death of Europe - yes, even of old age, Rummy - may be exagerated and premature.

This would neither be the first nor the last crisis of the European Union. The previous treaties would continue applying, with all their imperfections. Tony Blair might well be let off a very dangerous hook. The Euro's exchange rate may fall somewhat. Long term yields may rise somewhat and differentiate more than they presently do between countries. Unpleasant ? Yes for interest rates, no for the exchange rate. The end of Europe or of the Euro ? No.

But, first, forget about these ideas of a second referendum in France. That, given the way institutions are set up in France and the way the electorate reacts, is a definite non-starter.

Because, as you mention at the end of your post, a no result would be the conjunction of rejection of the treaty and of the current French government, I believe that a full political clarification would need to take place prior to France sitting at a negotiating table. This is scheduled in May 2007, normally.

Following this clarification, two avenues likely exist. One is a new "small size" treaty scrapping much of the present treaty's title III, which could then be adopted through the parliamentary process, even in France. The second is a "two-step" Europe where economic, political, diplomatic and military cooperation would be amplified among core countries such as those who are part of the Euro-zone. The latter was anyway basically what the German side argued for through the nineties and is my personal favourite. However, as I regrettably do not sit on the European Council, well you know...

posted by: bernard1 on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

the "bicycle theory" of international integration, which says that if there is any slowdown in integration, the process starts to wobble like a slow bicycle, eventually toppling under its own weight.

The problem with that metaphor is that the French know cycling, and they have seen any number of top cyclists bring their bicycle to a halt while still balancing on two wheels.

posted by: Tom Maguire on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]


Nice one.

You could also note several other points in the history of EU integration (most notably perhaps in the 1970s and '80s) where integration ground to a halt, seemingly faced with unconquerable obstacles (like Margaret Thatcher). Of course, that didn't stop the EEC from expanding AND adopting a single market and a single currency.

posted by: Clark on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

Hopefully a No-vote, if it happens, does not hurt the currency or common market; both of which are very beneficial to Europe. Also, hopefully, it puts a monkey wrench into the contrived political machine that is now the EU. The beraucracy (sp?) that now exists in mostly not needed in order to have a common market and common currency and probably has a net-negative effect on European economic life.
The proposed constitution is a mess and needs to be sent the way of the Articles of Confederation.
I'm not sure if the EU truly needs a constitution, but if so, in this case with a multi-trans-national organization a simple constitution should be the start (you can always add to it later).

posted by: AnotherScott on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

What are you talking about Matt? Does the name Jacques Delors mean anything to you?

Charles de Gaulle? Clearly a man who refused to admit Britain into his "European Community" which he only saw as an extension of French "power" in Europe is not a statesman dedicated to uniting all of Europe. I retract my absolute statement that all French leaders oppose it, but historically the French leaders and people have been less but enthuastic about foregoing their sovereignty and entering a new era of global governance.

posted by: Matt on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

Hi -

wiv: I was, of course, referring to the members of the commission, not the people working there. They can't be blamed for the rot, it does start at the head.

But the Commissioners themselves have been, to date, a fairly repugnant lot. Or would you disagree with that as well?

And the scandals around the MEP's supplemental incomes and the absurdities of travel arrangements and the like are well known. This is what is truly scandalous. It's not the *employees* of the EU that are corrupt: it's the elected members that view the EU as the teat from which to suckle from, or, as the Germans put it: Selbstbedienungsladen.


posted by: John F. Opie on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]


Thanks for that comeback. On the MEPs:

- it is an absolute disgrace that there are two seats for the Parliament - Strasbourg and Brussels, with a perpetual travel circus between them. Agreed. It costs the European taxpayers hundreds of millions of euros a year. Problem is, the French won't give up Strasbourg as a seat in the interests of the wider community, purely due to national prestige and the cash it brings the city. And there is a national veto on this. So no change. So much for the French being good Europeans.

- on the MEPs perks, I also agree - another disgrace - they need to sort out a proper system. There are ongoing discussions, but the problem is that the Council and Parlimanet have to agree a deal, and they have different interests, so it is slow. One reason why the current abuse has been tolerated so far is because MEPs are paid the same amount as national politicians in the country they come from, and so pay varies hugely between MEPS (Italians currently earn about 20 times what those from the new member states do).

And the expenses were widely seen in the past as a way of bumping up the salaries of the low paid to reasonable levels (though of course, ALL benefit from the system). Now though the disparities are so huge following enlargement there is now more pressure to reform the system, so on this point some progress might be made.

As for the Commissioners - they are supposed to be independent of their member state - the problem is, in the recent Prodi commission a number of commissioners actively promoted national interests, which not only undermines the principles of the institution, but also reduces the effectiveness of the Commission, which is no longer seen as an independent arbiter between member states. This was a key weakness of Prodi - he never took proper control of the Commission.

I'm not sure the recent Commission was actively corrupt though. There was no "Cresson" episode under Prodi as far as I recall.

Having worked here for some time though, and looking at the way memember states actually act on financial issues, I've reached the conlusion that the overall size of the EU budget should be kept pretty much as small as possible. National politicking means that it is difficult to spend community funds well, whatever the good intentions.

I think I would make an exception in some areas - there is a case for EU research money, and also a case for regional development money, which in the next 5-10 years will mean a lot of aid going to the new East European member states, which is something I think is desirable on the whole. But in my view this money should come from a sharp cutback in the CAP.

In that sense I side pretty much with the orthodox "British" position on these things.

posted by: rjw on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

The rejection of the treaty will definitely not be the end of Europe, the EU, or the Euro. My guess is that there will be a time of political upheaval, but that after a few years things will settle down with a new compromise.

What I am interested in; Will a French No-vote strengthen the people who want to make Europe more democratic, more a Europe for the people, of the people, by the people?? Or will a No-vote mainly strenghten the socialist and left-wing groups, who are mainly against the free markets and against a liberal Europe?

Here in Holland it seems that the left-wing SP is the most vocal, and most succesful, opposition party in the constitution debate.

Who has an idea??

posted by: Harmen Breedeveld on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

France won't lose anything if its citizens vote no because there is nothing really to lose.

Yet Jacque Chirac is pushing the 'YES' vote like a man possessed. I think he's making this personal. He is laying the foundation of his legacy, to create a de facto superpower with soup of nations. Will it work? Who knows.

posted by: Niraj on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

bernard -- you might want to start a blog, if you have not already (if you have one en francais) let me know. I at least would consistently check in to get your take on european politics

posted by: brad on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

brad, do you stop by our place?

posted by: Doug on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

thanks for the vote of support. I very much enjoy our discussions and/or disagreements. No, I don't have a blog, not even latin speaking: I cannot afford to be googled away too much at this juncture in time. Let me just say that I have been a forecaster for some 25 years including in Roach-like positions and have been observing politics for a long while although I convinced myself early on of a major personal comparative disadvantage in any potential political career. Cheers.

posted by: bernard1 on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

If the French vote non then maybe Europe will go back to the drawing board and scrap the radically stupid constitution they have drawn up. Instead of delegating powers in their constitution they have decided to codify every treaty and policy they have created in the last 30 years into one document. Its unwieldy mess that should be scrapped for a more paired down concept.

posted by: Parmenides on 04.25.05 at 03:59 PM [permalink]

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