The fact that in most European Union countries the majority of the electorate is only vaguely - if that - familiar with the entire text of the proposed new Constitution seems to matter little. For better or worse EU member states have chosen to either have the proposed Constitution ratified by national parliaments or take it to the people, have a referendum decide. As all 25 nations have to approve, all it takes is for one No to derail the locomotive. Chances are good that this rejection will be delivered over the next few days - either Sunday by the French, or June 1st, when the Dutch cast their ballots.
Referendums, if nothing else, polarize a nation, especially when jingoistic fears are raised. Consider only the times Canada has been dragged - or has been threatened to be dragged - through the mudslinging that were the hallmark of the Quebec referendums. With French Canada two Ouis for federalism have not been enough, the Nons still hope for a third kick at the can. In France proper, the "Oui" for the Constitution treaty looks dicey ; here one would prefer a "Non".
As of writing the French vote was too close to call, most polls see the Nons to be ahead by a nostril whisker. In the Netherlands it is not even that close - various polls are ..............
............. suggesting that a No result is almost guaranteed, one Dutch TV station found 63% of decided voters ready to reject the treaty.
In France, where the Polish President and German Chancellor have been heavily promoting a Yes vote, a knife-edge victory would mean little other than confirming the obvious - that the EU is facing a leadership vacuum. Should a double no result, many observers see the European Union slipping into a form of political paralysis. At the root of this paralysis are the French themselves.
Much has been made of the Old versus New Europe differences. Nowhere is it as pronounced as between the French and the Estonian models - if you like, two visions of European society that are ideologically opposite. The French are collectivists ; Estonians free-market driven. A fine analysis of this continental divide is provided by Sylvain Charat, Director of policy studies at the French think-tank Eurolibnetwork.
Charat's insightful article "Equality or Freedom", published online May 25th at techcentralstation.com has the spine to point out that no matter the outcome of the French referendum vote, the result will be still a victory for collectivism. And this is "the best and surest way to destroy the past 60 years of work in Europe", Charat warns. He sees France's present central role in the policymaking of the European Union as a clear threat to Europe's market-based economy - best exemplified by Estonia.
Charat writes : "French leadership bases its social vision on equality, the very source of collectivism. This does not mean being equal before the law, it means being socially equal - no one higher, no one lower. This eliminates any notion of competition in the name of social cohesion." France is known all over Europe for its civil-servant heavy work force, with the accompanying short work weeks, healthy benefits. Politicians rave about a "social economy" - that is one where health coverage (as but one example) is a state monopoly and a welfare society with little incentive to work and produce has resulted. In short, mediocrity, rather than excellence is the goal, a claim given strength when one considers the staggering fact that 70% of French teenagers see a civil service job as their dream career. Charet asks, what kind of a future will that bring for France ?
He compares the French vision with the Eastern European social vision, which is based on freedom. Critically, - and once again best demonstrated by Estonia, - this vision involves the "social integration of the rule of law and the acceptance of risk. Freedom, Charat argues, is a "risk, and cannot be separated from responsibility." He continues that a free trade society is the only one able to bring wealth and prosperity to the greatest number of its citizens. It, of course, does not mean that all is perfect, "but it means that there is much more opportunity for individuals to better themselves, to give of themselves, to make good use of their gifts and improve the world. Freedom, at its best, is the praise of excellence."
In Estonia it has been the younger generation that has broken new ground, whether in IT, banking, or business. French youth, on the other hand, wish for the safe sinecure of civil service, non-demanding, union-controlled and dictated existence. Excellence versus mediocrity, indeed.
The Constitutional treaty ratification is showing Europe at a crossroads. Europe must choose whether to follow the French example of collectivism or become united behind freedom. Charat questions, what if the economic union built on free trade would slowly devolve into a protectionist and welfare union ? The signs are all there, Jacques Chirac's leadership is all about protectionism, blocking cross-border competition and of weakening individual and property rights. Those familiar with the text of the Constitution see much more of the same for the EU that already exists in France.
Anthony Coughlan, writing in February, stated that the new Constitution would make democracy worse in the EU by abolishing the national veto on some 60 new policy areas or decisions - more than in the Nice and Amsterdam Treaties put together. It would thereby give the EU Commission the monopoly in proposing laws in relation to these areas. Now, that Commission is an unelected body, which France's President Charles de Gaulle once aptly described as "a conclave of technocrats without a country, responsible to nobody."
At the moment there is no single leader in the EU with vision, responsible to all 25 EU nations. Considering that it took two years for the present draft of the Constitution to be agreed upon, no re-negotiation or re-drafting is likely. As well, the EU is surviving quite nicely under the current Nice Treaty, which, while complicated, still leaves individual nations like Estonia with a voice, one that would disappear under the new Constitution. A "No" clearly calls for flexibility and freedom, not the folly of equality as practised by the French.