The rejection of the European constitution by the referendums in France and the Netherlands is a setback but not a disaster. The notion of a European constitution may have been proven to be further away than we previously thought, but that does not undermine the basic case for a democratic and effective European Union.
There are good reasons why the different member states of the European Union have sought over the past fifty years to build shared democratic institutions. They face common problems and wish to deal with them together. This fact has not been made to disappear by a 55 per cent majority vote of the French people or even by 61.6 per cent of the Dutch.
Building those shared democratic institutions has been a difficult and sometimes controversial task. It seems that the leaders of the national governments underestimated the difficulty and the controversy. It is important that they learn from this because the issue of Europe is not going to go away.
The first reason for this is that the issues that require a shared response from Europeans have themselves not gone away. The impulse towards a common foreign and defence policy comes from the need to respond effectively to crises on our borders. The stagnating European economy needs new initiatives at the European level as well as a concerted effort to complete the single market in areas where it is still not finished. The popular demand for the Brussels institutions to be more accountable and democratic – ironically, one of the strongest features of the proposed constitution – will need to be met.
There is a second reason why anyone who thinks that Europe is now off the agenda is mistaken. This lies in the reaction to the French and Dutch referendum results of the opponents of European integration. It seems that the opposition to the idea of Europe did not lie behind most of the No voters, but that will not deter nationalist forces in Europe now.
With the biggest blow yet having been struck against Europe’s post-war integration, anti-Europeans can be expected to feel confident and on the ascendant. It falls to those of us who value Europe to fight on. If anybody ever thought that the case for the EU was self-evident, they will have realised their mistake by now. There is no room for complacency: we must resort to energy and clarity to win the case and defend the idea of Europe.
Federal Union will be presenting proposals this autumn for how to restart the European process. It is in the interest of the whole of Europe that this restart is a success.
This article was written by Richard Laming, Director of Federal Union. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.