Barring any more surprises, Europe's four most powerful states are likely to change their leaders in the near future. At this writing, the outcome of the recent German elections is uncertain, with Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who was narrowly outpolled by the Christian Democrat Angela Merkel, scrambling to retain power. In France, Jacques Chirac, whose health is an issue, is likely to become a lame duck president in 2006. In Britain, Tony Blair has promised he will finally pass the baton to Chancellor Gordon Brown in the middle of the current parliament. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, facelifts and hair transplants notwithstanding, is being superseded by smoother, younger politicians on the right and is expected to lose the 2006 elections.
The new generation of leaders that replaces these men will inherit a European Union still reeling from the rejection of its laboriously negotiated constitution by voters in France and the Netherlands. On May 29, 55 percent of the French electorate voted the constitution down. On June 1, 62 percent of the Dutch electorate said "nee," more than even the gloomiest opinion polls had predicted.
Brussels hastened to say that the votes did not represent a general rejection of the European project. But even the EU's president in the first semester of 2005, Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, had to acknowledge that "Europe no longer makes people dream." Writing in the Financial Times, the former EU commissioner Frits Bolkestein was franker still: "Europe has been oversold." (1) Despite the noisy rhetoric of the EU's boosters, with their fervid picture of an emerging European superpower capable of counterbalancing the United States and representing an alternative model of Western values, it has long been obvious that the EU was facing fundamental questions about its future economic priorities and political purposes. The emerging new leaders of Europe will now have these questions on their plate.
The worst mistake Europe's leaders could make is to treat the referendum votes as simple manifestations of economic unease. Certainly, unemployment is high in the EU's heartland and young people, in particular, think they have restricted opportunities to find work and build a career. Certainly, Dutch voters seem to think that the euro is a poor substitute for the guilder. But the referendums have also represented a clear rejection, after what Chirac pronounced "un debat democratique exemplaire," of some of the core principles that have underlain the EU's development from a West European club in the early 1980s to the continent-wide political union of today.
In France, the voters said "non" to the economic rationale of the EU. Since the 12 members of the European Community agreed in 1986 to create a single market in goods, capital, services, and people by 1993, the main thrust of EU policy has been to promote liberalization of markets within and between the member states. Enlargement of the EU to Central and Eastern Europe, moreover, has opened the single market to countries whose lower wage costs, younger populations, and lower tax rates on business make them...