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So, the Dutch public have followed their French counterparts in decisively rejecting the EU Constitution. In attempting to explain what this means, Robert has posted an unsigned guest post at his blog that argues that the problem with these referenda is that they have not been about the constitution at all, but instead about domestic issues and people seeking to give their governments a bloody nose.
Instead of being about the document itself, the referenda on the Constitution have become a Trojan Horse for malcontents of various shades. When the public do not fully understand what they are being asked to vote on, it is far easier to make a negative case by playing on their fears and prejudices. The Yes campaigners have been hamstrung by the complexity involved. Opinion polls in France suggest that a significant reason behind the No vote of the French left was the suspicion that the EU is being taken over by an Anglo – Saxon, free market ideology which threatens to sweep away much cherished and hard won state protections for individual citizens. In the UK, predominately right wing eurosceptics fear a Franco – German threat to our national identity and the transfer of power to Brussels. (This is of course deeply ironic, we think the Frenchies are trying to take over and they think we want to impose Thatcherism on the world, with the same document!) In the Netherlands, where another No vote will surely follow, it is opposition to an unpopular liberal government, which will be the downfall of the Constitution. It is evident that in none of the above cases is it the actual text of the Constitution that is being voted on. The Constitutional referenda have been hijacked.
I agree with the mystery writer that, considering the deep legalese in which the constitution was written, the referenda ended up being fought on emotional issues closer to home. Although this is unfortunate, this is not a big surprise. I'm personally of the belief that the European elite, by producing such a document, ensured that they would have such problems. I have read only a few parts of it, but it has got to be said that it is not exactly a simple read. By crafting something that is so hopelessly inaccessible, the Constitution committee all but guaranteed that any campaigns on the matter would be focused on wider questions of the role of the European Union (as well as mostly unrelated domestic matters) and not on the document itself. The Constitution is a laudable idea, but by trying to tie up so many loose ends at once the framers created a needlessly complex mess.
I'm personally of the opinion that the European Union, bar certain mis-steps, has been a great boon to the continent over the past half-century. The EU has played a tremendous role in creating, from the ashes of the second World War, a prosperous and peaceful Europe. Indeed, the prospect of admission can be said to have played a bigger role than anything else in dragging Central and Eastern Europe down the right path after the collapse of Communism.
Nonetheless, one of the biggest mistakes that has been made in the course of deepening European political unity has been the pushing away of the public from the process in most countries. Britain is something of an anomaly in this, in that the Conservative Party has, for a long time, had a strong Eurosceptic wing, and voters have been presented with a genuine choice on philosophy towards European issues. In most continental nations, however, the major political parties have held very similar positions on European issues, and the public at large has had little opportunity to express their disapproval of the way in which the process was moving. Who doubts that if France and Holland had chosen to put ratification of the EU Constitution to parliamentary vote the result would have been a yes vote? Although I think that the more conspiratorial mutterings of, say, the British Eurosceptic Right, the whole "Brussels is out to destroy our culture" meme, are ridiculous, I do think that there has been a deep streak of arrogance at the core of the 'European project', a real failure to respect the concerns of the average person.
As a result of this, I think that these no votes, coming from two traditionally 'pro-European' nations, will, in the long run, prove to be quite useful in reminding the European political elite of the fact that they are representing real people, and not just abstractions.