No Reverse Gear, Please

Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin wall, Enlargement Day is coming. This being Europe, there is diversity in how to celebrate. Slovenia will station traditional accordion players at its border crossings. Sweden is organizing environmental hearings. Spain has invited foreign ambassadors to make a pilgrimage to legendary Santiago de Compostela. From Scotland to Cyprus, bands will play and fireworks blaze.

But what sort of Europe is it, precisely, that the 10 new members are joining? Here, there's less to celebrate. It is a Europe where governments have lost control of the politics of integration. Consider the new European Constitution, soon to be completed and presented for ratification. Last week British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a man who famously quipped that he "had no reverse gear," proved just the opposite. After long insisting that no referendum would be required for approval by Britain, he called on Tuesday for just that--a popular vote, to be held in about a year.

Domestically, it's a clever tactic. At a stroke, Blair stations himself and the Labour Party firmly on the side of "democracy"--as unassailable a political ideal as queen or country. He has divided the Conservative opposition and pulled the rhetorical rug out from under its plan to campaign on a demand for the public's say on the matter. And clearly, the threat that British voters might reject the Constitution will strengthen his bargaining position at final negotiations in Brussels.

For Blair personally, a constitutional referendum has the virtue of shifting public debate away from Iraq and the Middle East. Blair's once unmatched prestige and popularity have eroded precariously; insiders say he had little choice but to gamble. Certainly in announcing the referendum before Parliament, Blair sounded relieved. He openly relishes the opportunity to go on the offensive, exploit his skills as the greatest communicator in modern British history and be a passionate advocate of Europe to his notoriously wary countrymen.

The question is whether Blair can pull it off, and if not, whether he will have dealt the ideal of "Europe" a grievous blow. It will be a hard sell. Euro-enthusiasts siding with Blair wax optimistic about staging a grand debate: Britain, in or out of Europe? (And make no mistake: the referendum on the Constitution will also be a vote on joining the euro.) The British public, they hope, will be persuaded "for once and for all" to enthusiastically embrace European integration.

Euro-skeptics are equally emboldened. Fifty years of British prejudice and misinformation on Europe cannot easily be overcome in a single campaign. Nor are the polls particularly reassuring. If a referendum were held today, according to one recent survey, 53 percent would vote no, against only 16 percent in favor. French President Francois Mitterrand made a similar calculation in calling a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, establishing the modern European Union: persuade the French and split the right. He barely escaped with a win.

The danger is not only that Blair will fail to persuade Britons to back the Constitution, it's also likely that his move could induce other European governments to follow suit. By law, Denmark, Ireland and Luxembourg must hold similar referendums. Spain, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands may hold them--but need not. Given the requirement of unanimity, it's almost axiomatic that the more countries vote on the Constitution, the less likely it is to ultimately be adopted.

How ironic. The idea of a Constitutional Convention, with its florid comparisons to Philadelphia and "founding fathers," was originally intended to bolster the popularity of the EU by educating and engaging the European public. The idea was to "democratize" Europe. But what a tragicomedy of contrary outcomes. The document itself is sensible, modest and relatively effective in regearing the enlarged Union for its new era of 25 members. Yet it clearly has failed in its broader public-relations mission. Ordinary people have never been more mystified about Europe and its instruments. The prospect that the whole awkward edifice might now crumble in a heap of divisive popularity polls is more than even the most ardent Europhiles can bear.

The prospect is now a half decade of squabbling, at the very least, and not just over the Constitution. Incoming members will grumble over the inequitable EU budget. There will be turf fights over who leads at home--a "core Europe" of Germany and France, or a fresh generation of EU newcomers? Yet for the moment, Europeans should take a bow. Historians will surely consider enlargement the greatest achievement of Western foreign policy since the cold war. After 1989, it would have been easy for the Union's existing members to do nothing. Instead, they acted. There was no reverse gear. Somebody had better remind Tony Blair, lest Europe falter.