France’s clear and unequivocal rejection of the European Constitutional Treaty, followed by the “no” vote in the Netherlands, marks the end of the road for this text, as originally conceived, and the start of a period of uncertainty and of nervous negotiations, during which the governments will look for ways of overcoming the current impasse. The temptation to play down what has happened and to try and paper over the defeat, avoiding major upheavals, will be considerable. It must, indeed, be said that Europe is not faced by the threat of an institutional vacuum, or a crisis capable of undermining the current level of European integration: the Constitutional Treaty, after all, was nothing more than a rationalisation of the existing Treaties, and the technical innovations it contained, designed to facilitate the governance of a twenty-five member (or even larger) Union, can easily be re-proposed in other settings and in other forms. This point was, in fact, already raised in France, when the risk of a “no” result became strong. But to ignore the alarm bells rung by the French and Dutch citizens, albeit in different climates and with sometimes contradictory expectations, and to fail to tackle the European problems exposed by these referenda, would be a demonstration of gross irresponsibility on the part of Europe’s politicians. Europe’s future is at stake in the present phase, and failure to seize the opportunity to restart the process of European integration, on the basis of new, more credible foundations, will result in an irreversible crisis.
If nothing else, the debate in recent months has served to lift the veil of hypocrisy with which the governments and even the European institutions tend to conceal the real trend of the process of European integration. They speak of their desire to strengthen the cohesion of the Union and to set it on the road towards forms of political integration, but they do not create the instruments that would make this integration possible. Instead, they accept passively the watering down of the European Union that is an inherent aspect of its enlargement. Enlargement, in fact, in the absence of the necessary political counterweights, renders the original objective of a federal outcome increasingly remote and condemns Europe to a state of impotence and decline. The growing malaise expressed by European public opinion is due both to the growing perception, in this period of profound change, of the weakness of the nation-states and of the European Union, and to the start of a loss of belief in the prospect of a re-launch of the process of European integration. Certainly, re-launching the European project within the context of an enlarged Union will prove difficult, because – unlike the past – this goal can no longer be pursued through the Community method, or through the intergovernmental method.
Progress towards greater integration in the economic and social spheres – the debate in France was particularly fierce in these areas – is, in fact, now prevented by the impossibility of harmonising twenty-five highly heterogeneous economies simply through the agreeing of common standards, and also by the impossibility of re-launching the European economy when the EU has neither adequate resources of its own nor a democratic government answerable to the citizens. In addition, this absence of a European economic policy undermines the potential of the single currency and threatens its very survival. Similarly,the lack of a European foreign and security policy forces the people of Europe to submit to the balances of power imposed by other world powers, old and new.
The fact is that the European Union’s current impasse provokes widely differing reactions in the different countries. Whereas most of the new member states and those traditionally hostile to the process of unification want greater national control over the Union institutions and over decisions taken at European level, the countries that for the past fifty years have tied their political destiny to the process of European integration want more Europe, not less: these countries want a Europe that is capable of acting, of responding adequately to today’s changing world, of defending the European social model; they want a democratic Europe, with a government that answers for its decisions and its actions directly to the citizens. This is the real meaning, particularly in France, of the rejection of the European “constitution”, and it is the starting point from which, on pain of the total collapse of the whole project of European integration, the governments of these countries should now renew their efforts.
This means coming up with clear and concrete responses. The observation from which to begin – and it is no coincidence that this point was raised during the debate in France – is that if the process of building Europe is to progress, the idea of a several-speed political Europe, or a Europe of concentric circles, with a hard core at the centre, must be made a reality. It is an idea that has been in circulation for the past fifteen years, particularly in France and Germany, but that has never progressed beyond suggestions for (totally inadequate) forms of cooperation between the states. Certainly, as far as economic and fiscal policy and foreign and security policy are concerned, to avoid continuing to be paralysed by national interests, which are divergent by definition, there is no other way forward: these competences have to be attributed to European institutions equipped with the democratic power – in other words, power subject to the control of the citizens – to make and act on their own decisions, using their own instruments. But this can come about only through a radical transformation of the relations between the states, and in particular through the transfer of sovereignty to a federal state. Without this, all attempts to deepen further the process of European integration are doomed to failure.
This is the answer to the severe malaise that has been manifested by public opinion in our continent’s most pro-European countries. Only through the birth of the first core of a European federal state, set within the broader confederal framework that is the enlarged European Union, can the current impasse be reversed and Europe once more take control of its own destiny.
If, as is increasingly intimated, responsibility for re-launching the European project rests with the founder member states, then this is the direction in which the political class and civil society within the Six should already be thinking and moving. An initiative on the part of the Six, or of some of them, France and Germany first and foremost, can and must target the creation of a European federal state.