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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 1.06.05

Dismissed with a monosyllable: such has been the fate of the new European constitution. And this shattering little No comes from the very heart of Europe. Slightly less than 55 per cent of the people of France have voted against the European Union?s new constitution. The Dutch referendum is happening today, and the opinion polls seem to point in the same direction. If the Dutch also end up saying No, then the constitution is as good as dead. Brussels will then have to dream up another text of unification. Of course, such referenda are never confined to the particular issue on which the people are asked to vote. Every French household was sent a copy of the tome, and apparently one out of ten people in the country has read it through. But ultimately, what has been rejected is not simply the constitution, but the entire idea of a unified and centralized Europe, together with all that it implies economically, politically and culturally. This is not a simple No. It is born out of fear, uncertainty and mistrust, and profound divisions within, and between, the French polity and society.

What are the French afraid of? Of the changing, globalizing world, Euro-enthusiasts would say, of modernity itself. And in this, the extreme right and the extreme left, the Le-Pen-type nationalists and the communists, converge. The former fears the invasion of the Turks and the Poles ? Islamic terror and cheap labour. (Unemployment is currently at a five-year high of 10.2 per cent.) The latter fears the destruction of ?social Europe? by economic ?ultra-liberalism?, the collapse of the welfare state and of social justice, with the opening up of the market. The former is battling ?Anglo-Saxon? tyranny and the ?Berlin-Ankara axis?; the latter resisting what it regards to be Thatcherite ? or worse, Reaganite ? free-market economics. The referendum is also the people?s verdict against their political leaders ? a visibly rattled president and his prime minister, who is already history. This rupture, within democracy, between the citizenry and the government is also part of the post-9/11 world in which Europe seeks unity. It had happened in Britain, though in another guise, over the issue of the Iraq war.

If the new Old Europe is to become the much-needed counterpoint to American unilateralism in an increasingly unipolar world, then this entity has already proved itself far from unified in its range of attitudes to the Iraq war. This lack of unity is in the rejection of the constitution as well. Each naysayer within the EU has its own, local reasons for opposing it. The French No and the Dutch No would be very distinct, even antagonistic, responses. To India ? somehow managing to remain unified in spite of its chaotic diversity of language, politics and culture ? Europe would seem almost dully unreal in its homogeneity. But the French referendum exposes how deceptive this distant vision could be.