Two Noes to Europe


It is a pity that Australian history is so little known to the rest of the world; its lessons are keenly needed right now.

In the wake of the French and Dutch non and nee to the European Constitution something akin to panic has broken out in Europe. Crisis is proclaimed, in twenty-something languages. Dire warnings of a return to the inglorious past — to war, even genocide — are heard. In the wilder rhetorical zones, the abolition of the euro is declared to be on the agenda.

A little Australian history (and the optimism gene) might help. After all, the first referendum among the British colonies in the late 1890s also ended up with one recalcitrant colony saying no. A few years later, a new nation was born. In politics, at least, no doesn’t always mean no. And even when it does, the how and why of the no can be more interesting than the fact of it. Consider, for example, the (much) more recent Australian referendum on the republic — also a stunning no. In this case, there were two noes — one from the left (who wanted a better republic) and one from the right who wanted none at all.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson from the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson from the Australian

So, too, in Europe. The two noes to the Constitution are not the French and the Dutch, but the left and the right. Sorting through this makes for less depressing conclusions.

The right-wing opposition was important, and in France it was probably a majority of the no vote (about 60 per cent, according to one poll). This was a rejection of Europe tout court; a vote for a return to the nation-state and its culture as it was, or is imagined to have been, before all this nonsense started. This no case mobilised grief and fear; above all, the fact of past, and fear of future, loss. Loss of jobs and industries, of language and literature, of ethnic uniformity; the loss, even, of the franc and the guilder. Consciously or not, these no voters wanted not to stop the train; they wanted to derail it once and for all.

On the other hand there was a no from the left. These voters want Europe very much. They turned up — in Paris in the pouring rain — to celebrate their win, carrying and waving the European flag. This is not a no to Europe, but to an Anglo-American Europe, one in which economic liberalism continues its steady, destructive advance and moral conservatism reasserts itself. (A great fear for many Dutch was that Europe would roll back the country’s liberal social policies on recreational drugs and sex, euthanasia and gay rights, of which most Netherlanders are, justifiably, very proud.)

Which brings us to the Constitution. Given that the vote was, formally, on whether or not to adopt this document, it is surprising how little the debate actually addressed itself to it. It was not entirely ignored, of course. In France, it, and books about it, leapt into the best-seller lists in recent months as citizens tried to decide on what to do with their vote. But, by and large, the debate was about the broader issues that it raised, rather than the thing itself.

This is understandable. The Constitution is, technically, a treaty between contracting parties (just as the Australian Constitution is). Its opening phrase is: ‘His Majesty the King of the Belgians …’, launching a list of office-holders who had appointed their plenipotentiaries. (It gets better, but it’s a bad start.) It then goes on for either 200 or 400 pages — depending on your printer settings, I suppose. The document creates a non-rotating President and a Minister for Foreign Affairs, and it extends the areas where majority, as opposed to unanimous votes, can decide issues. But mostly what it does is consolidate existing treaties, tidies up loose ends and sets out what looks disturbingly at times like the Union’s ‘mission statement’. ‘Freedom, security, justice’ — all good, ‘civilisation, progress and prosperity, for the good of all its inhabitants, including the weakest and most deprived’; big tick.

But what are we to make of ‘an internal market where competition is free and undistorted’ (I-3-2)? Is this the same as ‘sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy’ (I-3-3)? You can see why some might want to worry.

For most people today who bother to think about such things at all, the main choice facing us is between varieties of capitalism — the American model or the European. Free markets, privatisation and deregulation and flexible labour practices are a given. But enough Europeans remain committed to the European model, the ‘social model’ as it is often called, in which changes are always considered in tandem with the question: how do we protect those who are likely to be adversely affected?

It’s not that Europeans (apart from the right-wing nay-sayers) are opposed to change. The very existence of the Union is testament to Europeans’ willingness to undertake the journey, but the Constitution was too clever by half, too much of a compromise, too much a ‘form of words’ to keep the doubters on-side. And so, for the politicians, it is back — not to square one as the more excitable have suggested — but certainly back a step or two, the better to advance in the future.

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