Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2005
Issue No. 747
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

When the French and Dutch say no

Rejection of the European constitution by two of the EU's founding members will not, in the long run, hamper moves towards political unity, argues Hassan Nafaa*

The French and Dutch refusal to ratify the EU constitution dealt European unity an undeniable blow. Commentators were quick to point out that the French and Dutch polls were indicative of profound and widespread misgivings among the peoples of Europe over closer integration. Indeed, some went so far as to suggest that the resounding "no" from these two countries was harbinger to the fragmentation and eventual collapse of European unity. Such a forecast is likely to prove extreme, not least because it ignores the nature and constituent elements of the European drive to integration.

The French and Dutch votes should occasion neither excessive alarm nor blithe dismissal. In order to obtain a more accurate sense of its implications we must keep things in perspective. The path to European unity has never been strewn with roses. The last half century has brought one formidable hurdle after another and there is nothing to indicate that the Europeans will not overcome this latest setback just as they overcame earlier obstacles. Indeed, the EU may emerge from the present crisis stronger and more determined than before.

The drive to EU unity was initiated in 1951 when six states -- France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg -- founded the European Coal and Steel Community, following upon which success advocates of European federalisation moved to hasten steps towards political unity. Within a couple of years two new groups were founded, one political, the other security oriented. The success of these efforts was crowned with the signing of the 1953 treaty establishing the European Defence Group. The refusal of the French National Assembly to ratify this treaty in 1954 brought the first major setback to the nascent and still fragile drive to integration.

It took three years for this drive to recover momentum, all the more robustly now for having learned an important lesson. Too much haste causes more problems than the potential gains warrant. The founding members of the EU were, however, able to mend the damage. The next success came with the Treaty of Rome, in 1957, which created the European Economic Group (the Common Market) and the European Atomic Energy Group. With these two the drive towards integration had succeeded in making the transition from a cooperative enterprise within the scope of a single economic sector to a comprehensive project for economic integration equipped with the supplementary components needed to lend it sustainability.

The European project settled into a process of phased integration through the gradual laying of functional building blocks. This process proceeded in accordance with a carefully devised agenda, beginning with the establishment of a united customs federation, then working up to a common market, then a unified market, unified economic and financial policies, a unified currency and the institution of arrangements for political unification. Having accomplished the greatest leg of the journey, Europe geared itself up to the relatively advanced phase of adopting a unified constitution, the draft of which is currently being put to public referendums across EU member states.

The difficulties encountered along the way can be classed in three categories: membership and horizontal expansion; approach and vertical expansion, and the budget and distribution of burdens.

For a long time the integration process remained restricted to the six founding members. The UK, for one, initially refused to join, preferring to stick to the European free trade zone formula. It was only when integration began to bear fruits that Britain realised its mistake and applied for membership of the common market. France, under De Gaulle, was opposed, believing that Britain had aligned itself so closely with the US that it would only serve as Washington's instrument for sabotaging European integration.

At the same time the core countries realised that if the integration process was not to degenerate into a closed club they would have to open up membership to others. They therefore drew up conditions for membership whereby other democratic European nations could be brought on board without jeopardising the economic gains that had already been achieved. On the basis of these conditions EU membership expanded until it reached 25 last year.

This horizontal expansion forced the EU to contend with two dilemmas: the disparity in the economic structures and infrastructures of member countries and disparities in the levels of democracy and political and social development among them. These problems were overcome through massive aid programmes that enabled new members to undertake the appropriate economic and political structural transformations.

Problems regarding vertical expansion were precipitated by differences over methods used to promote integration and the degree to which they were commensurate with international and regional developments. Some problems were resolved over time. Others escalated into fully-fledged political crises that required yet longer periods of time to subdue. De Gaulle, for example, sought to jettison the supra-national institutional approach in favour of an intergovernmental cooperative approach. The conservative Thatcher government balked at signing the European Charter of Social Rights. The Blair government signed but refused to join the euro zone. Enormous effort went into solving the problems of vertical expansion. If the passage of time was the crucial factor in solving the problems raised by De Gaulle, the EU nevertheless succeeded in striking a balance between the institutional/functional and intergovernmental/cooperative approaches. On other matters of economic integration it adopted the "varying speed" principle, permitting member nations to continue the assimilation process but at a pace suited to their specific circumstances.

Many altercations have been sparked by the methods for calculating and distributing financial obligations. Large disparities in the contributions member nations were expected to make to the EU budget caused no small amount of acrimony. The UK was the country that most frequently raised this issue. The first time occurred in 1974, only a year after it joined, when Labour government leader Wilson insisted to renegotiate its conditions for membership. The EU responded positively and the problem was solved. In 1979 the Conservative government began to grumble that it wasn't getting its money's worth out of the EU. Thatcher's famous demand, "I want my money back", plunged the EU into a new frenzy of budget balancing in an attempt to bring member nations' dues closer in line with their relative benefits. This was not resolved until 1984 when it was agreed to modify the budget design mechanisms so as to ensure greater equitability in the distribution of financial burdens. Moreover the lines of tension have not been constant. At times governments clashed with one another, at others governments were at odds with themselves. On other occasions the governments and their people were at opposite poles. The results of the French and Dutch referendums on the EU constitution are another example of this type of divide.

As important as it is to keep this setback in context it is equally important to consider its particular significance. It is the first time the populations of countries fundamental to European unification have registered such a protest.

Experts on EU history suggest that the current crisis is the product of two interrelated sets of factors. The first has to do with the pace of the integration process. The expansion and consolidation the EU has made over the last decade exceeds the cumulative progress made over the four preceding decades. The European people should have been given time to absorb the recent transformations before being asked to proceed to the next step, especially one entailing the enormous psychological leap needed to adopt a unified constitution. The second set of factors pertains to Europe's pursuit during this same decade of a policy of rampant capitalist globalisation, in which considerations of economic and technological rationalisation shunted aside considerations of cultural identity, social values and anxieties over job security. As a result of these two intertwining factors the EU integration process came under attack from both the right -- fearful that their societies' national and cultural identities would be submerged in an as yet amorphous European identity, and the left, wary that the forces of global capitalism would commandeer the process of integration to the detriment of the poor and middle classes.

In light of the above the French and Dutch vote can be viewed not as a rejection of the idea of European unity per se, but rather as a request for time. Voters told their governments to use the interval to rethink their plans in a manner that will ensure fairness and equality.

The majority of Arab commentators tend to overlook the fact that the most salient feature of the European integration experience is its democratic character. This is the feature that has always ensured that the course and pace of the process be regulated by the desires and aspirations of the peoples concerned rather than by the desires and ambitions of their political leaders, even if those leaders are democratically elected.

European democracy, of which the current referendum process is a clear manifestation, will come to the rescue of the European project. It has a history of showing itself capable of formulating creative and viable solutions that meet the general aspirations of Europeans. Globalisation may slow down the integration process but cannot bring it to a halt. Europe, at the moment, needs to pause and catch its breath before resuming its arduous journey on the path to political unity. The only alternative, after all, is to face the spectre of reverting to the conditions that prevailed before World War II and that is a prospect European peoples will seek to avert at all costs.

* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

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