The Struggle for Europe

The Struggle for Europe

The crisis of Europe and the French left

Constitutions are often born out of tumultuous moments—after a war or in a moment of collective reconciliation. By contrast, the European Constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters last spring sought to translate half a century of peace into a formal political settlement. Although proponents of the constitution, especially within the European left, were dismayed by the No votes, some of them believe that it is possible to turn the rejection into an opportunity both for the left and for the European Union project as a whole.

The EU went through several transitions in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its elites advanced vigorously a project of expanding links among member states across the continent. It seems clear now that they were unable to persuade a substantial majority of their own citizens to embrace their vision. Opposition by the political extremes—both far left and far right—is not surprising. However, the No votes in May and June demonstrate that the challenge has entered the mainstream. As a result, the EU is in the midst of what may be its most serious political crisis since its inception. How did this come about?

European “federalists” proposed continent-wide constitutions at different times throughout the twentieth century. Following the Second World War, the idea of a United States of Europe was placed on the agenda, but the most ambitious proposals of the late 1940s and 1950s were scuttled by opposition from Gaullists, communists, and assorted sovereignists. As a result, a more pragmatic approach was fashioned by people such as Jean Monnet. It was not enshrined in a constitution but in the 1957 Treaty of Rome that established the European Economic Community. The EEC, in turn, served as the legal foundation for European integration. Instead of a grand political design, the idea was to link West European citizens more and more by a sense of solidarity and by common economic interests all while cooperative habits were fostered among policy makers. In this framework, “Europe” evolved from a customs union into an international actor by the 1990s. Intergovernmental bargaining was institutionalized, the European Community’s Commission in Brussels promoted and coordinated EU activities, and a European Parliament (in Strasbourg) slowly expanded its role, all while a European court increasingly made itself felt.

In various ways, the Treaty of Rome and later, additional treaties functioned as a de facto constitution. Concurrently, what some call a “permissive consensus” emerged: European elites pushed integration forward with the tacit support of their citizens. Because this seemed to work effectively, why adopt a formal document? The usual answer is, for democracy and efficiency. By the turn of the millennium, the EU had many prerogatives associated with sovereign states: various police powers, border controls, currency regulation, and cooperative (at least partly) foreign policy....