The Politics Of Plebiscites

Political life has ground to a halt. Pundits and politicians can't stop talking about it. Yet more and more, it seems, ordinary folk want nothing to do with it. "It," of course, is the European Union's proposed constitution, likely to be rejected in France on May 29 and perhaps also in the Netherlands on June 1. Twenty successive French polls have found a majority opposed. Dutch voters remain apathetic and undecided. If by some miracle both vote yes, then it's out of the frying pan and into the fire next year, when the even more Euro-skeptical British go to the polls.

Once heralded as the apotheosis of European idealism, the constitution has become an albatross around Europe's neck. Desperately trying to save the disputed document, European leaders are pandering to its opponents and disowning the enlightened and pragmatic ends for which the EU was conceived. French presidential aspirant Nicholas Sarkozy uses the constitution to bash eventual Turkish membership in the EU. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder formally favors the constitution--but undermines it by attacks on "liberal" Brussels and those at home who favor economic reforms that would put good Germans out of work. France's Jacques Chirac touts the constitution, too--even as he calls for a united European front against Chinese imports. Deregulation of services, moderate immigration policies and other sensible proposals that should have been considered on their merits are caught up in a media-fueled maelstrom of plebiscitary politics. No wonder the EU's popularity is mired below 50 percent--a record low.

The irony is bitter. After all, according to its sales pitch, the constitution was supposed to make Europe more "more democratic, transparent and efficient." Powers were to be decentralized, making the union more liberated and open to its citizenry. There was to be a European foreign minister, enhancing Europe's role on the world stage. Enthused by such prospects, informed and newly energized Europeans would advance confidently toward their common future and (natch) further integration and unity in ever-larger numbers.

In retrospect, this seems hopelessly naive. After embarking on their constitutional project, Europe's pols papered over opposition by putting the document to a vote. Along the way, everyone has lost sight of the content of the constitution. As conceived, it is in fact a conservative document that consolidates current activities of the EU with modest advances in scattered areas from weighted voting to foreign policy. As politics, it has become the passive receptacle (as in all previous European referendums) of voters' discontent over everything from Moroccan immigration to social-welfare cuts--almost none of which are caused by EU policies. By naysaying the constitution (which ultimately they might find they like very much), citizens thus can say no to what they don't like, often beginning with their own politicians.

This is too bad, for the constitution's undeserved troubles embolden extremist Euro-skeptics. Whatever the fate of the constitution itself, it will take years to neutralize the political fallout of the plebiscites. If nothing else, the impasse demonstrates the bankruptcy of the notion that the EU can be legitimized through more publicity and mass participation--in short, by democratizing. Politics by plebiscite generates political chaos. It weakens European governments just as they face difficult tasks of fiscal consolidation, sustaining their welfare states and managing multicultural polities.

It is time to renounce, once and for all, the ideal of Europe as a replacement for the democratic nation-state. Far from transcending nations, the EU coexists with them. About 25 percent of European legislation is channeled through Brussels, mostly involving trade, money, industrial standards and complex market regulation. The rest--including taxing and spending, social-welfare provision, immigration, education and defense--remains essentially national.

Europeans seem satisfied with this balance, just as they remain satisfied with their vernacular linguistic and political cultures. The accented English spoken in the European Parliament may become the second language of all, but it will remain the first language of none. European symbolism needs to respect the doggedly diverse nature of Europe's peoples. No wonder the phrase "ever closer union," found in the preamble to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, has been supplanted in the current constitution by "unity in diversity."

A defeat of Europe's reasonable constitution may be regrettable, but it might help good sense to prevail. The EU has traditionally been most successful when it's most pragmatic--that is, when it promotes myriad quiet reforms to meet specific challenges, whether reducing acid rain, standardizing cell phones or enlarging the union. Such incremental successes are far more important to the everyday lives of Europeans than the hollow symbolism of a brand-new constitution.