It will be interesting to see how the French vote on the European Union's constitution on May 29th. Jacque Chirac has a long way to go if he wants to bring the French citizens with him and move the EU towards tighter integration. As one of the leading members along with Germany, a "no" vote from the French would be crippling to other countries' passage of the document.
As this article from Charles Wyplosz in RealClearPolitics illustrates:
"Because all EU member countries must ratify the constitution, a French "Non" will, in effect, kill it...
Amazing as this turn of events seems, it has been long in the making. It is amazing because France is not just a founding member of the European Community, but also has been the main driving force behind all major steps toward 'ever closer union.' But French opposition was also predictable because, for over a decade now, France has veered away from Europe and now finds itself increasingly isolated. Of course, Europe has also moved away from France through successive enlargements, but the main roots of the estrangement lie in France itself."
Professor Wyplosz gives several good arguments why France and the other principal nations of the EU are diverging and they are not associated with the Iraq war.
"The French regard with great sadness their declining status and prestige - not only in world politics, but also in culture, science and, importantly, language. Europe, in their view, was always a way of reclaiming world influence.
For three decades, this worked. France and Germany had forged an alliance that called the shots in Europe. Not interested in geopolitical power - a legacy of its Nazi past - Germany was content to back France's ambitions as long as the Common Market allowed it to be Europe's economic powerhouse.
But that alliance is unraveling as Germany's own status declines, owing to its mediocre economic performance and the loss of its prestigious Deutschemark. Moreover, Germany is increasingly interested in exercising political influence on its own; as a result, it is no longer happy with what it gets from the alliance with France."
It must be difficult for the French citizens, with much more generous worker benefits than most of their EU counterparts, to accept a more integrated union when they have an unemployment rate of 10.1% for the general public and 22% for youth under 25, which is over double Britain's 4.8% overall unemployment rate and 12% for those under 25, according to the Economist. France's economic engine with all of its socialist, lack-of-incentive-to-work structure is making further integration that much more of a challenge. Mr. Chirac tried a debate before a youth audience to bridge the opinion poll divide and failed. In the same Economist article, the appearance was summed up rightfully:
"Young job-seekers tend most often to be excluded—hence their anxiety. Asked on television last week why Britain's unemployment was so much lower, Mr Chirac replied that its social rules would be 'unacceptable' in France. In the Rue Damrémont, that falls flat: what is unacceptable is not being able to find a job."
Charlemagne in his regular Economist column (different from the above quoted article) has an excellent analysis of the political thinking behind salvaging the EU from a "no" vote. Even with the countries stripping out key parts of the constitution and enacting them into law under their current rules, there could be major long-term structural problems.
"But it would ignore the new and unpredictable political mood that would surely follow from a French no. Fed up with the economic and political consequences of EU enlargement, France might be tempted to push for a radical reorganisation of the EU around the original six members. A country that is into its fifth republic would have no fear of a second EU. But the difficulty with French day-dreams of this sort is that, after a referendum failure, Mr Chirac would be too enfeebled politically to launch any such initiative. And the Germans, France's indispensable partners, might anyway be disinclined to follow him."
The EU draft constitution never had wide appeal. The EU has long been more a dream of political leaders on the left than the average worker or pensioner. The constitution was originally envisioned without a direct popular vote for some of its participants.
"Eurosceptics have long predicted that deeper integration based on shallow popular support would spark a backlash. And not just Eurosceptics. A year before the constitutional convention met, Frits Bolkestein, then a European commissioner, commented that 'it would be a risky business to work towards a federal Europe, since there is a good chance of failure and Europe might then end up on the road to disintegration as a kind of reaction.'"
A vote of no by the French, followed 3 days later by the Dutch, could set European dreams of integration back a decade or more. It would also further increase America's long-term political and economic power while staving off further EU military integration, most likely, in the long run. Without a good deal of popular support behind the EU, it would be hard to rally its already struggling economies to move military spending to levels that are anywhere close to the US.
May 29th will be an important date.