The Meaning Of “Non”

Lynne Kiesling

About five weeks ago, when I was in France, I pondered the upcoming French referendum on the EU Constitution. I certainly concluded that it was a curate’s egg, with the (extremely few) excellent bits being what, according to Glenn Reynolds, induced

French free-market activist Sabine Herold [to support] the EU because she thought that only an external institution could break the power of the French unions.

Yes, but … the distance between the Lisbon protocols (free-trade, transparency, lower bureaucracy) and this iteration of this Constitution is sizeable. My hunch is that this defeat will open up a more honest discussion of the internal economic and cultural tensions within the EU, and may even make the Lisbon protocols all the more possible than the Constitution would have.

Mr. Seat also has some choice links. I think it’s pretty clear that this document is a Constitution no one can love. The entitlement class fears competition. The political elite want to maintain their power and keep European government bureaucratic and elitist (a Constitution of 485 pages? Please!), and the attempt to drape democracy around that power and call it a Constitution was pretty flimsy and transparent. Or at least that’s the conclusion I drew about why it was a bad institutional change, notwithstanding Sabine Herold’s argument that exogenous institutional change is necessary to break the French unions.

I particularly enjoyed today’s Wall Street Journal editorial on the vote:

The French vote is a victory of democracy against an opaque and elite process that few people really understood. It is also a defeat for those leaders, notably French President Jacques Chirac, who have been unable to deliver on what they promised from a united Europe. The defeat shouldn’t be seen as a renunciation of “Europe” writ large, so much as for a particular narrow vision of the Continent.

The document itself is a monstrosity running to 485 pages. As a flavor of its character, consider that one of the treaty’s “annexes and protocols” concerns the right of the Sami people to husband reindeer. …

The prevailing view among European elites was summed up by a senior EU bureaucrat we spoke to last month who said about the French and the constitution: “They haven’t read it. If they had read it, they wouldn’t understand it. If they understood it, they wouldn’t like it.” Nonetheless, he thought that the French should vote yes anyway.

Then, about six weeks ago, something unusual happened: Opinion polls suggested for the first time that the French referendum on ratification might fail. And even more remarkable, a debate erupted. It was messy and often uninformed, but at bottom people had started to ask themselves, what should the EU be?

In answering that question, the French may well have done the right thing for the wrong reason. The opposition included much of the political left, which derided the constitution as an ultra-liberal (in the classical sense of liberal), Anglo-Saxon thing, destined to strip Europe of its social-welfare model. At the same time, Mr. Chirac asserted that the constitution was France’s only bulwark against the encroachment of Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism.

And of course the selection of Dominique de Villepin as prime minister reinforces Chirac’s commitment to the Titanic that is the French social-welfare model.

Watching this play out is going to be interesting. I hope some constructive, small-l-liberal voices get a good listen this time, instead of just being dismissed with a disdainful Anglo-Saxon stereotype. While the rest of life disintermediates, decentralizes, and distributes, why shouldn’t EU institutions? If the EU can’t survive that, then it’s not really that robust a federation, is it?

Part of the challenge is that the European political elite has been trying to build a top-down federation, when it’s bottom-up federations that are evolutionarily robust and adaptable. Can these political elites sincerely craft a bottom-up constitution for a federation?

2 thoughts on “The Meaning Of “Non”

  1. Non

    Eugene Volokh does not appear to think highly of the French non vote on the proposed EU constitution:As best I can tell from what I’ve read recently, the substantive arguments for the French “no” vote weren’t very sound, either; and peevishness at the …

  2. “Doing the right thing for the wrong reason”

    In the natural sciences, we are often told to avoid anthromorphizing a natural process. Ie, attributing motives and strategies to things (eg, genes or the flow of water) that can’t think nor strategize. However, I think here’s an example in human society when one should do the same. I don’t think it’s a good idea to attribute motives collectively to all voters. Especially when you classified some motives as “right” or “wrong” ahead of time.

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