EUROPEAN UNION: The French Referendum

EUROPEAN UNION: The French Referendum

May 26, 2005 9:55 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What is at stake in France’s vote on the EU constitution?

A great deal. Most experts say if France votes "no" on the European Union constitution in its May 29 referendum, the future of the document will be in jeopardy. France is one of the original founders of the European Economic Community, the European Union’s precursor, and leaders of both of France’s major parties back the constitution. But polls show that a growing number of French citizens, from free-market advocates to labor leaders, are lining up against it. Experts say if France votes "no," the Dutch, whose support for the constitution is eroding quickly, may well follow suit during their June 1 referendum. All 25 members of the European Union must ratify the constitution, either by parliamentary vote or popular referendum, for it to take effect.

What does the EU constitution do?

Its purpose is to better accommodate a larger European Union that by 2008 will comprise 27 countries and 500 million people. Logistically, it will replace a series of existing EU treaties signed over the past half century with a single, formalized text. "A lot of this constitution is a consolidation [of rules], not an innovation, even though these are important steps forward," says Charles A. Kupchan, director of Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The document is meant to coexist with--not replace--individual members’ constitutions. It also enshrines a number of basic rights for EU citizens, including freedom of speech and religion, as well as the right for workers to strike and move about the European Union freely.

How does it improve on the current system?

By streamlining decision-making, experts say. The 458-article constitution contains a number of important procedural functions to prevent gridlock and improve cohesion within an expanded European Union. Among them:

  • Reallocation of votes. Under current rules, spelled out in the 2001 Treaty of Nice, EU members are allotted a given number of votes and required to reach unanimous agreement for major policy decisions in certain areas. The new constitution, in response to last year’s expansion to include 10 new members, allocates votes to more accurately reflect countries’ populations, giving greater weight to larger members. It also does away with unanimous voting on justice and law-enforcement issues, leaving only decisions on defense, taxation, and foreign policy subject to unanimity. However, to prevent more populous countries from exercising too much power in votes decided by simple majority, the constitution requires that a "qualified majority" of 55 percent of the member states and 65 percent of the EU population approve a policy before it can become law.
  • Coordination of foreign policy. The new constitution creates the post of EU Minister of Foreign Affairs. The purpose of this position, according to the European Union’s website, is to "give the EU a higher profile in the world and a single human face to represent it in international relations." The post is not meant to supplant, but to work with, individual members’ foreign ministers. The constitution also creates the beginnings of a diplomatic corps and consolidates EU policy on the distribution of humanitarian aid.
  • Strengthened executive. Previously, the presidency of the 25-member European Council, the top decision-making body in the European Union, rotated alphabetically by country, and each president served a six-month term. Under the new constitution, the president will be the European Council for a term of two-and-a-half years, allowing him or her to set a stronger long-term agenda.
  • Reiteration of EU authority. The constitution is clear about which matters the European Union will have authority over (trade and customs, agriculture, workplace safety, the environment, among others) and which are relegated to individual members (foreign, defense, and tax policies). The constitution confers additional power to Brussels over issues like immigration and justice. In these areas, as before, EU law supersedes domestic law.

Why are many French voters expected to vote no?

French voters across the political spectrum have raised issues about the constitution. Many of their concerns, experts point out, are not about the document itself, but about the role of France in an ever-expanding Europe, the pace and process of constitutional reforms, and concern that control over immigration, economic, and social policies will shift to Brussels. Among their integration worries:

  • Economic fears. There’s a concern that France’s economy, already suffering from slow growth and double-digit unemployment, will be hurt by an influx of cheap goods and labor from new members in Eastern Europe. Some French leftists say the constitution places too much emphasis on free-market policies that would strip away social services and raise unemployment, which is as high as 22 percent for those under 25. Farmers worry that the new constitution may end their generous farm subsidies under the current Common Agricultural Policy.
  • Anti-Chirac hostility. Many in France are voting no simply to signal their disapproval of French President Jacques Chirac, whose 10 years in power have been marred by corruption scandals and unpopular reforms of the country’s social programs. Chirac, a leading proponent of the EU constitution, has seen his approval rating drop to 39 percent in recent weeks, the lowest of his term.
  • National sovereignty. A common complaint heard among French voters on the right is that the EU constitution vests too much power in the hands of bureaucrats in Brussels and will create a sort of super-state--or "United States of Europe"--that strips power away from member states. "They’re terrified of this lifeless, formless thing called the European Union," says Arnaud de Borchgrave, an expert on European politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  • Immigration. One of the biggest fears of French voters is that immigrants, both legal and illegal, will flood their labor market--particularly should Turkey, a country of 70 million, become part of the EU in the coming years. Some fear a large influx of Muslims from Turkey would also dilute and transform Europe’s historically Christian culture. "If Turkey gets in, the EU will then be bordering Iraq and Iran," says Pepper Culpepper, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University. Accession talks with Ankara are scheduled to begin October 3.

What are some other objections?

One of the biggest issues Europeans have raised with the document is the manner in which it was written. They complain that the constitution, drafted by a select panel of 105 European experts over 18 months, was conceived in secret without any public debate or input from elected officials. European voters say they know little about the contents of the hefty 450-page text. Others are concerned that the constitution may be too much, too soon. "[W]e may be at one of these times where the Europeans have placed too much on their plate," said Richard R. Burt, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, at a May 16 event at the Council on Foreign Relations.

What happens if any country votes "no"?

It’s unclear. As Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, president of the European Commission, told the Council on Foreign Relations on May 13: "We don’t have a plan B." That is, there is no clear procedure in place if the ratification process fails, although Barroso indicated the European Council would then formally take up the matter. Experts say it is unlikely the European Union would redraft the current document, given the scope and scale of the project. More than likely, the European Union would continue to function under the previous set of rules and treaties indefinitely until a compromise is reached. Some experts have suggested certain concessions might be added to win approval in larger states like France or the Netherlands. There is also the chance of a revote in smaller countries.

Could the failure of the constitution mean the end of the EU?

No, but there could be some repercussions, experts say. Decision-making under existing rules would be made cumbersome; the European Union’s seven-year budget could be delayed; and the process of expanding the group to include Romania and Bulgaria, scheduled for 2007, may get slowed down. Some economists say that uncertainty over Europe’s new constitution, along with the widening gulf between EU members’ economies, could also weaken the euro by inhibiting Europe’s ability to control members’ spending and inflation levels and exert itself as a forceful and united economic bloc.

What other tests will the constitution face?

Sixteen out of 25 countries still need to ratify the constitution. The June 1 Dutch referendum, which is nonbinding and can be overturned by parliament, is seen by some experts as a crucial next step toward ratifying the constitution, given that the Netherlands was among the founding members of the European Union and, in per capita terms, is now its largest contributor. Other upcoming hurdles include votes by Denmark, the Czech Republic, and most importantly, Great Britain. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised he will hold a referendum on the EU constitution early next year, regardless of the results in France and the Netherlands.

— by Lionel Beehner, staff writer,

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