1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Opinion: French Vote Not the End of Europe

Bernd Riegert (nda)May 30, 2005

Many have already started reading the European Union the last rites after the French rejected the EU constitution on Sunday. But far from killing it off, the EU may in the long run benefit from the result.

The rejection may give the EU time to reflect and consider its next moveImage: AP

The 'non' vote in the French EU constitution represents one side of a European paradox: France has long been one of the strongest advocates of cooperation and integration within the bloc and yet Sunday's vote against the EU constitution is a clear sign that the French people now reject a contract which would promote these ideals.

However, while doom-mongers may now be ringing the death knell of the EU, the French vote may actually give the bloc time to reflect and to take its foot off the gas in the enlargement juggernaut to its benefit.

The French 'no' vote had been signposted for weeks. It had been clear for over a month that the European constitution would not get a majority vote in favor from the French people.

And yet, while the rejectionist camp got stronger, the leaders of the EU states put their heads in the sand. There was no Plan B. Even on Sunday, current EU president Luxembourg's Jean Claude Juncker and EU Commission President Jose Barroso were at a loss to explain the result.

A constant debate of wishes and demands

EU Verfassung EU-Gipfel in Thessaloniki
Image: AP

So what happens now? Even if all the EU member states except France agree on the constitution, which is highly unlikely, the French voice will still remain unchanged until the constitution is amended to their satisfaction. To change the text of the constitution to get France on board is also unlikely as it would mean that all the EU states would call for their demands to be included, turning the constitution into a continuous debate based on wish lists.

No, there is no second chance. The constitution in this form is dead. Without France it cannot be accepted even if the other referendums, like the one taking place in the Netherlands on Wednesday, get a 'yes' vote.

What now for Europe? Crisis? Disaster? Chaos? It is doubtful that this nightmare scenario will come to pass despite the obvious rejection of the constitution. The EU already has a working, although complicated, legal framework with clear rules in the Nice agreement.

Not the end but a chance to rethink and regroup

And some, including German EU commissioner Günter Verheugen, believe that once the repercussions of this setback have been digested, the EU can actually make progress. The union will go on working and not break up. France will not resign.

EU Erweiterung Symbolbild mit Flagge und Karte
Enlargement will have to be reflected on at a considered paceImage: European Communities

At first, there will be a pause for reflection on the speed of integration and the progress of enlargement. Only after such consideration, which may take years, can the constitution project and the streamlining and democratization of the decision-processes within the EU continue.

It is also conceivable that some policy areas can be addressed successfully outside the constitution debate. The creation of the EU Foreign Secretary position could be achieved without it being linked to the constitution as it would be free of many of the issues that prompted the French rejection.

Turkey bid in danger as Chirac's support could wane

Gerhard Schröder und Jaques Chirac in Straßburg
Together on Turkey last year but what does the future hold for Europe's engine?Image: AP

But other areas will suffer -- specifically Turkey's accession to the EU. It is doubtful that negotiations will begin on Oct. 3 as planned. French President Jacques Chirac, along with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, was one of the strongest advocates of Turkey's entry to the EU but the negative referendum has surely weakened his position.

Chirac will be more skeptical in future after the majority of French people rejected the EU's present course. Schröder himself may even be removed from power by the end of the year and replaced by a conservative alternative, further decreasing the support Turkey has in the bloc.

Romania and Bulgaria, in contrast, have already signed their contracts to join the EU but it is hard to say at this point whether the French vote will have any effect on their accession.

The need to adapt and rebuild

The repercussions will not end there but the EU must face them and adapt. There will be social and economic challenges, none more so than the differences between west and east.

Der französische Präsident Jaques Chirac und sein Außenminister Dominique de Villepin
French President Jacques Chirac and the man expected to become French Prime Minister in the wake of the vote, current foreign minister Dominique de Villepin.Image: AP

As important will be the need to rebuild bridges within the EU. Jacques Chirac's stock in Brussels has dropped considerably due to the fact that he put the vote to a populace of angry people rather than ratifying it through government, a choice he ignored. Chirac chose domestic affairs over Europe and if the EU is to progress from the French rejection of the constitution, its leaders will have to be seen to be working for the good of the bloc.