Many citizens of France’s 24 partners in the European Union, or of states that aspire to enter the EU soon, are angry – indeed, indignant – at France’s rejection of the European Union’s constitutional treaty. After the Dutch “no,” there is fear that distrust of the European project will spread.
The French vote mainly expressed a rejection of our ruling class and deep anxiety about our economic prospects. It was a vote of misery and desertion, an impulse moved by panic as well as anger.
But the size of the “no” vote also reflected the persistent lack of a clear explanation by our politicians of what the EU brings to Europeans in terms of wealth, competitiveness, social welfare and, of course, peace. Too often, our politicians disparage Europe and impute to it evils (like unemployment) that are really the result of domestic insufficiencies.
Like many in France, I do not believe that this thunderbolt means the end of Europe. We can and must react positively, and we can do so by returning to basics and offering to Europe’s nations, including the French and the Dutch, new challenges and a new spirit.
First, let us express the undeniable facts about Europe’s Union. Above all, Europe means peace. Peace was at the heart of the ambition of Europe’s founding fathers. It returned as an animating and unifying force with the collapse of communism and the Balkan wars of a decade ago. Peace is also a living issue today, given global terrorism and Europe’s unbreakable alliance with the United States.
It is wrong to pretend that the risk of war is behind us. If Europe’s vigilance breaks down, violent conflict will become a possibility once again. A united Europe can respond to these dangers in ways that no single state can. Moreover, no single state can weigh in on international negotiations and offer solutions to economic rivalries or trade issues that threaten to degenerate into political clashes.
Europe also incarnates democratic values. The Union helped countries in southern Europe overthrow authoritarian regimes in the 1980’s, and helped countries in Europe's East become democracies in the 1990’s.
Enlargement of the EU is not only an economic duty to be borne by the richest nations; it is also the recognition of a common history and a shared culture. We in the wealthy West do not have the right to abandon this task, and we must welcome in the same community of destiny all democratic countries east to Russia if they fulfill the EU’s criteria.
Europe also means prosperity and, for the countries that joined the EU recently or will join shortly, the promise of prosperity. All countries face, to different degrees, economic problems. But there is a model, simultaneously economic and social, that only Europe embodies. The European framework is exacting but necessary. It is as far from being a controlled economy as it is from resembling the libertarian anarchism that many French opponents of the constitutional treaty fear. It is a framework that is based on a discipline and solidarity within and between member states from which no one can be exempt.
To be sure, behind the Union’s great schemes lurks another EU, one that is excessively bureaucratic. But it also must be recognized that the EU built its success on its meticulous processes and ability to regulate economic life for the benefit of all. It was in this way that it radically transformed economies and societies for the better.
Nor can we overlook the banal bargaining of European leaders, the quarrels over budgets, and the rise of national egoisms whenever elections loom. True, such political infighting makes the EU appear as if it is no longer motivated by great and noble ambitions. Even the constitutional treaty, which should have been a clarion call for all Europeans, was allowed to become bogged down in minutia. Indeed, today no European political figure of global stature offers an ambition that resonates.
So our task is to offer Europe a new foundation and a new impulse. We need founding fathers – or mothers – and nations moved by a clear understanding of their interests and a popular enthusiasm for European integration. The road will be long. But we are compelled to be confident that we can move domestic politics to higher considerations.
Europe’s academics, senior civil servants, business executives, and trade unionists must work together to build a project that expresses a new frontier for Europe. If we are unable to build a new idea of and for Europe, all that Europe has achieved in the last 50 years will be put at risk.