Jun 3, 2005 | 02:50 GMT

7 mins read

EU: Rejections and Questions

In the aftermath of the French and Dutch rejections of the EU constitution, the question being asked across Europe can be summed up as, "What do we do now?" It is a question no one is well positioned to answer, and domestic complications across the Continent are such that Europe will not make a serious attempt to answer it for months.
The May 29 French and June 1 Dutch rejections of the EU constitution have thrown Europe into a bit of a panic. Many are asking if this means the beginning of serious problems for the Union, and should the EU start to disintegrate how fast will it happen and how far will it go? All are serious questions that Europe will need to come to grips with in the weeks and months ahead. But the dominant question on Europe's multicultural mind right now is, "What do we do now?" Europe will find that question difficult to think about, much less answer, for the next several weeks. And the longer the gap between the constitutional defeats and the formulation of an answer, the further and faster the European Union will slide. France The EU constitutional referendum's failure in France was a shock to French President Jacques Chirac and a huge blow to his reputation, which he had wagered on the referendum's success. The failure not only spoke to French unease toward the direction of Europe, but also to the lack of support for Chirac and the government of the Fifth Republic. On such shaky political ground, Chirac replaced unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin with a man who garners only slightly more faith from the French, former Interior and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Hobbled by the referendum failure, Chirac was also forced to bring back Nicolas Sarkozy as interior minister, a man much beloved by the French people and who stands as Chirac's greatest rival for the 2007 presidency and represents personal political betrayal — in the 1995 presidential race, he abandoned his 20-year relationship with Chirac and backed Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. Now the French government exists in a veritable limbo between two starkly different men: the traditional and conservative Villepin and the trumpeter of reform and reduced state regulation, Sarkozy. Holding such a government together — much less making it functional — will be no mean feat. For the rest of his term as president, Chirac will only be dealing with European issues in his paltry free time. Germany The situation is similarly chaotic in the other half of the Franco-German partnership that has traditionally driven Europe. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has indicated his intent to call early elections after his Social Democrat Party (SPD) lost power in the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state and an SPD stronghold for 39 years. Whether the elections call is real or not is an open question, but one thing is clear: Schroeder's domestic situation leaves him in no position to lead a charge as the champion of Europe. The German center-right opposition, the Christian Democratic Union, whose leader Angela Merkel secured her position as the right's candidate for chancellor May 30, currently holds a consistent double-digit lead over Schroeder's SPD. If elections do occur in Germany — and they are currently targeted for Sept. 19 — then Schroeder's SPD will almost certainly lose, and anything Schroeder says would be ignored anyway. Regardless of elections, Schroeder's government is skating on the edge, deeply unpopular even with his own party. That is not a position from which to enter into any sort of meaningful Europewide negotiation. Italy Barely recovered from political crisis in mid-April 2005, Italy is thrust into an increasingly perilous position as the EU constitution falters and the Union's stability and future come into question. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi might have survived the parliamentary vote of confidence April 27-28, but elections are just around the corner — scheduled for 2006 — and many of the same problems that led to the vote of confidence (Italy's poor economy and the presence of Italian troops in Iraq) remain. With a government that barely survived crisis slightly more than a month ago, Italy is in no shape to help figure out what to do about a derailed EU. The Netherlands Before the June 1 referendum, nearly 85 percent of Dutch politicians expressed agreement with the EU constitution. However, their enthusiasm for the new charter was out of sync with the feelings of the Dutch population; provisional results from the June 1 referendum show nearly two-thirds of voters against the draft treaty. Sensing that their finger is nowhere near the pulse of the average voter, the Dutch Parliament is now debating what else to put to referendum, with topics ranging from the future of a nuclear reactor at Borssele to Turkish accession plans and a tax on vehicle journeys. Such a policy is quite wise considering the circumstances. It is also quite distracting and time consuming and largely removes the Netherlands from Europewide discussions. Luxembourg The country currently charged with overseeing those discussions is Luxembourg, which has held the EU presidency for the previous five months. In that time it has inadvertently managed to anger the bulk of the EU states by assuming it had full support on altering the Stability Pact that undergirds the euro, and supporting Croatia’s membership despite Zagreb's foot-dragging on turning over war criminals. Even if Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker had proven capable of managing EU affairs and internal relations — which he has not — Luxembourg hardly has the stature necessary to guide the EU through this particularly traumatic point in its history. The United Kingdom That task falls to the United Kingdom, which will assume the presidency of the EU Council on July 1 for the last six months of 2005 — the first time a major power has filled the role since Italy held the presidency in 2003. Unfortunately for the EU, London — always skeptical of European integration — is the country least likely to pick up the pieces of the constitution and make something of it. It is also the country most likely to launch Europe into a new bout of problems. After the constitution, the next biggest issue for the EU is debate over the 2007-2013 budget. The United Kingdom pays more into the EU's $132 billion budget than it takes out, an issue that has triggered such resentment in London that in the past it vetoed all European developments until its EU partners agreed to give it a rebate on the difference. London now wants to limit EU budgetary intakes overall and plans to use its term as EU president to get its way. The UK presidency will strengthen the hand of the bloc of large countries that want to reduce expenditures and who can afford to delay any deal to get what they want. Moreover, another one of those net donor states that wants to limit the budget is Austria, who takes over the presidency when London's term is complete. Conclusion In short, the prognosis is poor. Europe currently lacks a leadership capable of seizing the Continent by its horns and forcing a discussion, much less a solution. For now the best that Europe has planned will be a meeting of its prime ministers and presidents in Luxembourg on June 16-17. But many of those leaders — and in particular the leaders from Paris, London, Berlin and Rome — will either be woefully distracted, speaking without an electoral mandate or committed to snarling the process further. Unless a plan of action is agreed to in Luxembourg — which the odds are sharply against — the EU's path will then be consigned to the tender mercies of London and the European summer, when citizens and politicians alike disappear from the landscape for weeks at a time. And we mean literally disappear. Bear in mind that in the summer of 2004, when a heat wave swept through France, nearly 15,000 elderly Frenchmen died. Most were not even discovered until more than a week after they expired. Why should an apparently unloved constitution expect much more attention?

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