American Enterprise Online
April 19, 2005
By Alan W. Dowd

BRUSSELS—“Those who fail to plan are planning to fail.” If you don’t accept the wisdom of that oft-quoted business axiom, keep an eye on Europe and its nascent union over the next few weeks. 

At the end of May, France will hold a national referendum on the European Union’s behemoth constitution. The 260-plus-page document, which addresses everything from fisheries to occupational hygiene, must win approval from all 25 EU members by November 2006. EU members can decide how to ratify the constitution, whether by referendum or a parliamentary vote. To date, the constitution has been approved by five EU members.

Given France’s central role as one of the EU’s founding members—and its president’s desire to forge a political-economic counterweight to America—one would expect the measure to pass easily. In fact, one would expect it to win a mandate from this self-styled engine of European integration. But if the vote were held today, French opinion polls show that the constitution would be soundly defeated, with 55 percent of likely voters saying “non.”

Surely President Chirac and the EU’s other founding fathers have some sort of escape hatch or safety valve, just in case France behaves like, well, France. But from what I have heard in meetings with EU elites, there is no Plan B if the constitution fails in France.

That once-unthinkable prospect prompted Chirac to hold a US-style town hall with young French voters last week, during which he made a futile effort to use nationalism in order to defend a document that nullifies some of the main trappings of nationalism. (The centerpiece of the EU constitution, for instance, creates an EU foreign minister and requires member states to “support the common foreign and security policy actively and unreservedly.”) According to Chirac, “The Anglo-Saxons and the Americans’ interest is, of course, to stop the European development, which risks tomorrow to lead to a much [stronger] Europe.”

But those old tricks didn’t seem to work. In fact, some polls even show the “non” camp gaining support.

The news from Paris is sending shockwaves through Europe: The Greek parliament delayed a vote on the constitution amid the turmoil in France, although it approved the measure this week. The Financial Times reports that surveys in the Netherlands, where a referendum is set for June, show 24 percent in favor of the EU constitution, 23 percent undecided and 53 percent opposed. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has indicated that Britain would probably shelve a planned vote on the constitution if it fails in France.

Some Europeans call it a crisis. Others are concerned that French voters are “misusing” the referendum by taking out their frustrations with the government on the EU constitution. Still others say it’s a matter of semantics, that if the EU’s wise men had just called their constitution a “treaty,” all would be fine. But few seem to recognize this for what it likely is—evidence that the EU has pushed too hard and too fast and too deep for many Europeans.

The regrettable thing is that many EU advocates will see this as a failure, when it is anything but that. They believe that the process of European integration is like riding a bike—that if they stop peddling, they will fall and fail. But they’re wrong. Europe is rather like a garden, where we till the soil, sow and water the seeds, tend to the weeds, and nurture the growth and bloom of many plants—not just one. 

In other words, failure of the EU constitution does not mean failure for Europe. The two are not dependent on each other. In fact, I would submit that the European project is more of a success without an unwieldy governing document, without a faux foreign minister, without a Euro-army. Of course, I do not have a vote in the matter. This is Europe’s union. How Europeans choose to govern themselves and how many layers of government they lard onto the continent is their prerogative and problem—not America’s. But as we were reminded before and after the statues came crashing down in Iraq, how Europe’s government or “government of governments” behaves and interacts with the rest of the world is very much America’s problem.

With or without a constitution, Europeans must figure out if they are a union of semi-sovereign regions or a vibrant neighborhood of nations. With or without a constitution, they must decide if they are one or many. With or without a constitution, they must decide if they really want to become a counterweight to America—and they must consider all the dormant dangers and divisions that would reawaken.

And with or without a constitution, Europeans should realize that Europe is a success. It is freer, more peaceful, more united and more open than it has ever been. A decade ago, it was hemorrhaging with ethnic warfare. Twenty years ago, it was teeming with tanks and bracing for World War III. Midway through the twentieth century, Moscow divided it with an iron curtain and then scarred it with a wall. And in the first half of that blood-soaked century, Europe spawned two wars that slaughtered uncounted millions.

Indeed, on those occasions that I have traveled to Europe and walked on peaceful streets, in bustling cities, on a continent concerned about culture, commerce and constitutions, I am reminded of the dreadful journeys my grandfathers had to make to Europe. They came across the ocean not for business or pleasure, but for war. They fought on those streets and in those cities. They were there when the beaches of France turned red with blood. They saw smoke and fire rise over Belgium’s forestlands. They closed the killing camps and murder mills of Germany.   

In other words, both sides of the Atlantic have reason to be proud of where Europe is today, of the great distance it has traveled—or perhaps better said, we have reason to be grateful for how the journey has gone these last ten years. And Europeans have even more reason to be content with building a community of independent nations, a zone of free markets and free peoples, rather than a United States of Europe.

That should be Europe’s Plan B. For that matter, it should be Plan A.