French 'No' Vote on Constitution Leads to Confusion

The meaning of yesterday's "no" vote in France on the new European Constitution is on the minds of many people in Europe and the U.S. What effect will it have on international relations?

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The political shock waves are still reverberating through Europe. Yesterday, French voters rejected the European Union Constitution. The immediate result is expected to be a quick Cabinet shakeup by French President Jacques Chirac, but there will also be repercussions in the broader political landscape, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

EU bureaucrats in Brussels were bracing themselves today for the Dutch to follow the French in a similar rejection of the EU charter in a referendum on Wednesday. Just one year after the European Union expanded from 15 to 25 member states, the continent's integration process appears to have come to a halt. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso tried to put on a brave face but acknowledged there was no plan B.

Mr. JOSE MANUEL BARROSO (EU Commission President): That's a very serious problem we have now. Of course it will have implications. That's why I hope that we are able to build a new consensus. We are able to analyze what went wrong, what are the problems, because there are problems.

POGGIOLI: Reeling from a resounding defeat, French President Jacques Chirac tried to limit the damage today, reassuring his EU partners that France will press on with European integration. But European political analysts said the nature and size of the no vote reflects a much broader unease with the direction an expanded Europe is taking. These voters fear the dismantling of their welfare state by East European workers newly admitted to the EU and willing to work for lower wages. Voters also fear the so-called Anglo-Saxon model of unregulated capitalism enshrined in the constitution as the free-market economy, and they fear the eventual entry of Turkey into the EU with its 80-plus million Muslims.

French political analyst Dominique Moisi says the repudiation of the constitution is a repudiation of a concept of Europe as a guarantor of peace, an image dear to the post-World War II generation but now outdated.

Mr. DOMINIQUE MOISI (French Political Analyst): You had yesterday a coalition of very different forces--the extreme right, the extreme left--who are anywhere--anti-European, who said, `That's enough. Europe has been turned from an ideal into an ideology. We want something else. We want something new. We don't accept what your dictates are.'

POGGIOLI: And it's not just the French who feel this way. Polls show that throughout Western Europe, young people, in particular, are not inspired by lofty rhetoric on the European postwar order: peace, freedom and free circulation of people. EU Commission Vice President Margot Walstrom acknowledges that citizens have felt left out of the European expansion project.

Ms. MARGOT WALSTROM (EU Commission Vice President): We have to see that Europe has changed. And I think we have to realize that European citizens demand much more from both the leaders and the democracy, and they want to have a say. So we ought to be also be better at listening in the future, so there are a number of lessons to learn from this.

POGGIOLI: But already different attitudes have begun to emerge. German Chancellor Schroeder, whose parliament has already ratified the treaty, said the failure of the French referendum is a setback for the constitutional process, but it's not the end. But British Foreign Minister Jack Straw has called for a pause for reflection, a statement that casts doubt on whether Britain would go ahead with its referendum on the constitution next year. As for repercussions on trans-Atlantic relations, Italian political analyst Sergio Romano believes the result was met with relief in Washington, which he says favors a politically divided Europe.

Mr. SERGIO ROMANO (Italian Political Analyst): But I very much hoped that the United States are not going to interfere. But it's quite understandable that they should have their preferences and their sentiments, but they should keep them to themselves because interfering at this time would probably make Euro-American relations even worse than they had been before the Iraqi war.

POGGIOLI: European leaders will meet in mid-June in Brussels to reassess the entire European integration project. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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