In this beginning of 2006, the project of constitutional treaty is still at the centre of most EU discussions. Does this mean that the process of ratification is being rejuvenated or is it the sign of a profound deadlock in which the EU institutions and political leaders are stuck? What course will follow the EU between today and the June 2006 Summit, a summit first designed to mark the end of the “thinking era” initiated in June 2005?
The answer to these questions depends on three factors out of which the first will be analysed in this issue of the ‘GlobalEurope Anticipation Bulletin’ (GEAB) :
1. the capacity of each member state to determine a strategy concerning the future of the constitutional project
2. the capacity of the various European institutional players (EU and member states’ institutions) to converge on this subject
3. the possibility to identify politically realistic solutions integrating the objective consequences of the French and Dutch « Noes ».
The failure of the constitutional ratification process initiated in 2004 indeed proved that some elements, previously regarded as key factors, were no longer relevant, such as those declarations of intent made by political leaders and governments, or such as those publications released by the EU institutions and some related “authorized bodies” located either in Brussels or in our national capitals. All of them were convergent before the French and Dutch referenda, even in their analyses of a potential « No » (when these existed at the beginning of 2005) which concluded to the fact that « No-ist » countries were doomed be isolated amidst a fast and massive wave of ratification in the other member-states. Every one knows what actually happened; and today’s EU is still sunk in the unforeseen (though not unpredictable, as proved by Europe 2020) of the May-June 2005 referenda.
We can thus consider that one of the first consequences of the French and Dutch “Noes” is the opening of a crisis of legitimacy of the entire analytical system of / on the European Union. The latter was indeed completely mistaken on a central subject. From an easily predictable project, the EU all of a sudden turned into a process defeating the quasi-totality of the resources specialized in the analysis of its evolution.
This situation generated a double paradox:
. on the one hand, it triggered an interest, an increased need, to anticipate future events suddenly appearing more uncertain and unknowable due to the crisis initiated by those referenda
. on the other hand, the analysis and prospective system used for decades to envisage the evolution of the EU was largely discredited as being capable of providing reliable information.
The future of the European constitutional project … … Member-states amidst the hardships of the Constitutional Treaty’s future
The French and Dutch « Noes » broke the constitutional march projected by the European institutions and the governments. The unexpected freeze of the ratification process all around the EU proves it. This freeze illustrates the immense problem raised by the French and Dutch votes in each and every other member-state: national political classes are from now on afraid of the ratification process itself.
The reason is simple: this process acts as a catalyst of their rejection by their public opinions. Which does not mean either that the French and Dutch votes merely reflected national preoccupations, as the referenda’s losers were keen on arguing, quite the contrary. And that’s precisely what frightens most the national political classes. It is precisely the European dimension of the stakes and of the debate conveyed by the Constitution which petrifies politicians today and in the coming months. It is the interest for the matter (the high turn out in the French and Dutch referenda is to be opposed to the very low rates reached a year before in the European election) which worries them. Many analysts interpreted this as a sign of « nationalisation » of the debate on the Constitution. However all those, including the politicians, who took part in some grass-root debates during these referenda could note the opposite. It was all about Europe indeed. And it is precisely because of this European perspective that the relevance and legitimacy of national politicians were blamed. Politicians are « instinctive » people and as such they very well « felt » what most analysts ignored: and that is that if their crisis of legitimacy largely exceeds the European question solely, European issues, via the debate on the Constitution, acted as a catalyst of and amplified the rejection they are victims of and turned it into negative electoral results, quite obvious these ones. For a political leader, unless unusually highly motivated, such risk is practically unacceptable because politically “lethal”.
The case of the member states having ratified the constitutional project by parliamentary vote is eloquent: most of them ratified the Constitution with overwhelming majorities (often above 90% of « Yes »); however most of them were immediately satisfied with the decision to put the ratification on “standby” without any clear date of resuming. Of three things one: either governments are so confident in the continuation of the ratification process that they do not care waste some time; or they are convinced that their parliaments will choose to « forget » their vote if it proves that the constitutional project remains eternally on « standby » ; or they consider that the situation is so intricate that they do not have the least idea on how to overcome the obstacle. In all the cases, in order to be satisfied of such “standby” after a quasi-unanimous vote of its Parliament, a government must be assured that there is no risk of popular pressure or internal political crisis following this choice.
The fact that no party represented at the national Parliament in any Member State chose to turn the continuation of the process into a major political stake, whereas their MPs massively adopted it, proves that these same political parties estimated either that their voters were not interested in the subject (what is contradictory with the strong participation in the French and Dutch referenda); or that they were very far from following their parliamentary political group in its approval to 90% or more of the constitutional Treaty.
These two possibilities lead to the same result: the continuation of the ratification process of constitutional project has become an extremely perilous political act for the whole of the political classes in power in the Member States, likely to destroy their remainder of democratic legitimacy. Indeed, in this context, let us be aware that a parliamentary vote with more than 90% can only be explained if the population is also largely in favour of a decision, or if the opponents are little or not at all represented within the Parliament concerned. The French and Dutch cases, combined with the recent results of national elections in the EU, entitle to believe that the second explanation is the right one.
And that has a direct consequence for each Member State which ratified the project of European Constitution by parliamentary vote: the failures of the project in France and in the Netherlands simultaneously reinforced the opponents and weakened the partisans of the Constitution. Indirectly, but very significantly, they also weakened the parties known as “of government” and their parliamentary representation, while they energized extra-parliamentary forces.
In the Member States where no ratification had yet taken place, the choice of the parliamentary method, even if it were “traditional” before June 2005, was immediately criticized to be a choice of mistrust with regards to the citizens; an argument which proved very efficient and which the governments in place were eager to avoid given the weakness of the position of national “governmental” parties in the EU.
Now remains the case of the two member States by which the “scandal” arrived: France and the Netherlands. Neither grass-root analyses nor discussions with the political classes leave any doubt: the Constitutional project as signed by the Heads of State and Government of the EU in 2004 can no longer be ratified by parliamentary vote nor by referendum, neither tomorrow nor the day after. No French or Dutch political leader will be able in the years to come to take such a political risk without being automatically beaten in the following elections.
In conclusion, the analysis of this first factor determining for the future of the European constitutional process illustrates the extent of the difficulties which each Member State will have to face in order to define a national strategy on the question of the European constitutional process.