Thursday, June 02, 2005

Rejection of the EU Constitution in Two Countries: All Politics is Local

"All politics is local." So said the late Tip O'Neill, one-time Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

I think O'Neill was right. People tend to vote for what they perceive to be in their interest and the interest of their communities and countries. The pervasiveness of this local slant is why Americans hate a Congress that spends too much money while loving their congresswoman or congressman for bringing pork back home to their district.

I suspect that this propensity for voting "local" is the biggest factor behind the rejection of the European Union constitution by voters in France and the Netherlands in recent days. Justifiably or not, there is a real fear of losing their national identities among citizens in the twenty-five European countries that are part of the EU.

Post-referenda interviews with voters in both countries have found many who like the idea of Europe and may even think that increased integration is in their nations' long-term interest, but fear the loss of their national identities and practices.

In France, of course, the no vote may also be partly explained by the generally low regard in which the government of President Chirac is currently held. Chirac's government strongly endorsed the referendum and it may have suffered for that connection.

Any American school superintendent whose district fails to pass an operating levy could tell you all about the mental connections voters sometimes make. Voters, fed up with taxes or inefficiencies in other government agencies, will often take the opportunity to express their displeasure by voting "No" to hapless school districts' requests, even though they have nothing to do with the real object of their ire. France is currently suffering from 10% unemployment and the French are fed up.

In the Netherlands, the prime minister and cabinet were opposed to the constitution, leaving its opponents as the only voices heard in the election run-up and no doubt, helping explain why that country repudiated it by a landslide.

Some in this country wonder if deeper integration of the European Union would be in the interests of the United States or not. Businesspeople may feel that it would be, since it would be easier to negotiate deals with one country than with twenty-five. In an appearance on the Diane Rehm Show today, the EU's ambassador to the US suggested that it would also help in coordinating the war on terrorists between Europe and the US.

Historically, the US has been an advocate of greater European unity. President Eisenhower, with his experience as commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War Two and as first NATO commander, always hoped that the "United States of Europe" would be formed. There was a lot of talk about such a new configuration of the Continent when I was a kid.

But from the US perspective, there may ultimately be a less compelling need for a "USE" or "USE-Lite" these days. Ike was thinking in strategic terms, seeing Europe United as being more able to coordinate a common defense against Soviet aggression. The Soviet Union no longer exists and many of its former satellite nations are part of the European Union in its current form.

Integrating Europe may be an even taller order than the one confronting the founders of this country faced. While the thirteen colonies that declared independence in 1776 were more accustomed to dealing with London than they were with each other, they by and large, shared common institutions and language. Contemporary Europe probably does have a common language--English, but there is wide variation in their traditions.

Even with the advantages enjoyed by the founders of the United States in creating a nation, an utterly unprecedented venture to that point, it still took time for them to pull it off. The Articles of Confederation, the original legal compact for the independent states, found the thirteen colonies pulling in different directions, unable to coordinate economic or foreign policy or provide for their common defense. That's why they came up with that brilliant document, the US Constitution.

That touches on another possible explanation for the rejection of the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands. The average American fourth-grader can read the US Constitution in one sitting if she or he puts their mind to it. It's impossible to imagine that a French fourth-grader could wade through the European document, which runs to 450-pages, in multiple sittings. It's also doubtful that even 2% of the voters in either France or the Netherlands read it, making it easier to reject than accept.

Still, I think the reason for the defeat of the EU constitution is not very complicated. After the election results came out this week, my wife was talking with a British emigre who's lived here a long time. "I can understand how the people of France and the Netherlands feel," she said. "Even though I've lived here for over forty years, I hate the thought of making England any less English!"

In the end, I go back to Tip's wisdom in explaining the defeat of the EU constitution in these two countries: All politics really is local. And it looks like for now that France and the Netherlands want to keep it that way.

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