When voters in France and the Netherlands turned down the proposal for a Constitution for the European Union, the world knew that the European project was in deep trouble. Last week’s bruising battle over the medium-term future of the Union’s budget has confirmed that verdict with a vengeance. It also brought to a sorry close the UK’s six-month presidency of the European Council, confirming Britain’s long-standing reputation as the odd-man-out in the European Union.
The two events are intimately connected. French and Dutch voters did not say why they voted against the planned Constitution. But many commentators believe that they were protesting against what they perceived as the precipitate admission of ten new member states, mainly much poorer countries from Central and Eastern Europe. In particular, voters were afraid that their jobs would be lost to hordes of Eastern immigrants, exemplified in the image widely quoted at the time, of the low-cost Polish plumber.
The irony, of course, was that most of the 15 old member states had refused to give the new members full and immediate access to the Western job markets. But in any event, it was too late to protest: the ten Eastern states had already been granted membership of the Union.
But now the 25 member states must deal with the financial consequences of that enlargement, not just in the overall size of the European Union budget for the next seven years, but in who pays and who benefits. In particular, the central issue is how far the old member states are willing to pay to boost the less developed economies of the new members.