French voters and Dutch citizens cast ballots in referendums in the next few days on whether to accept a new constitution for the European Union. Public opinion surveys indicate a majority in both countries is opposed to the constitution.
Voters in France and the Netherlands will decide the fate of a new constitution for the European Union, or EU, when they cast ballots in referendums, the French May 29 and the Dutch June 1.
All 25 European Union members must ratify the constitution before November of next year in order for it to take effect. Some countries, such as Greece, Italy, Hungary and Germany, have approved the charter by parliamentary vote. Other countries, such as Spain, have done so in referendums. Now it is the turn of French and Dutch voters to give their "up or down" vote on the proposed text.
Those who favor the constitution, say it will make the European Union a simpler, more transparent and efficient organization. They say it will also give the EU a stronger presence on the world stage.
Those who oppose the new charter believe the enlargement of the European Union from 15 to 25 members happened too quickly. They fear the influx of workers from central Europe and ultimately from Turkey, which will mean a loss of jobs in many traditional EU countries. But experts also say that the upcoming vote could be more of a referendum on the French and Dutch governments than on the merits of the EU constitution.
Public opinion surveys in both countries indicate a majority of voters oppose the new EU constitution.
French President Jacques Chirac is a strong advocate of the treaty. In a recent televised address, he told French voters that: "Rejection will be seen as a 'no' to Europe." And he went on to say: "Europe will break down."
Francois Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, says that kind of apocalyptic rhetoric can backfire. "One of the political mistakes of the 'yes' camp has been this insistence, giving the impression that if there ever was a 'no' vote, there would be no tomorrow. Of course there will be a tomorrow. Now the tomorrow may not be as nice or as interesting as the one you would get with a 'yes', and that is certainly what I would argue, but to say that there will be no tomorrow is simply demonstrably wrong," he said. "And I think the electorate in this country, in France, has not taken very well to this sort of cataclysmic line of argument by many of the folks in the 'yes' camp."
Analysts agree that if French and Dutch voters reject the new constitution, that would be a major setback for EU governments.
Nicole Gnesotto is the Director of the Paris-based Institute for Security Studies of the European Union. "There is no 'Plan B.' The only thing I can say is that if there is a French 'no' on Sunday night, obviously it will be a big political shock and a big political crisis within the EU And even more, if four days after that, the Dutch say 'no' too, it will be one of the most important political crises in the EU since its creation in 1957," he said.
Analysts are quick to point out that a rejection of the constitution does not mean an end to the European Union. It will continue to function under existing legislation. But experts say the political crisis will force EU leaders to reassess some of the fundamental principles governing the European Union.
One principle is whether or not to continue enlarging the union at its current pace. Talks are expected to begin in October on Turkey's eventual EU membership. Daniel Keohane, senior analyst with the London-based Center for European Reform, says those talks could be postponed.
"Certainly there is a danger that President Chirac would use a 'no' vote to say: 'The French people are not happy with Europe. We need a pause. We cannot proceed with anything, especially enlargement and therefore we should stall the negotiations.' But whether or not the other governments would agree with that is another matter. Because, of course, anyway, even if Turkey did start its talks in October, it could possibly take 10 years before Turkey joined, or longer," he said.
Many analysts say if the "no" vote prevails, what will emerge is a much more introverted Europe, a Europe that will be consumed with internal issues rather than fully engaged in international affairs.
Francois Heisbourg says that would not be a good thing for relations between Washington and Europe. "Europe is the only part of the world, the only large and important part of the world, in which the United States has populations in states with which it has strong affinities. We don't always agree with each other, indeed often we disagree, but we have these strong affinities," he said. "And the U.S. severely lacks partners in the contemporary world and an inward-looking, navel-gazing Europe, which is what we would have if the 'no' vote prevailed, would not make a very good partner for the U.S. It would maybe be a less difficult partner than the Europe flowing from a 'yes' vote, but it would certainly be a less capable partner."
Analysts say it is ironic that at a time when the United States would need a strong, unified European Union playing an important role on the world stage, voters in France and the Netherlands may force the union to decide otherwise.