After Rejecting Constitution, What's Ahead for the EU?

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The commentator gives a forecast of the political climate in the European Union, now that France and the Netherlands have rejected the proposed constitution.

ED GORDON, host:

The president of the European Union wants the European Council to decide the next steps for the constitution later this month after it failed to pass in France and Holland. Commentator Siddhartha Mitter says the European Union has no clear plan B.


So the people have spoken, but what is their message? Last week, voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the proposed European Union constitution by heavy margins. The constitution, a lengthy document that would have replaced the jumble of political and social treaties that currently bind the EU's 25-member countries, is now effectively dead. Yet no one seems to agree on what led to its demise.

Some American observers say the constitution was rejected because it allowed to much regulation by the unelected EU Commission, but most no voters in France feared the opposite. They worried that the constitution would force privatization and competition for services they believe the states should provide. In Holland, the constitution's economic model was not the major issue. Dutch voters worried more about preserving their distinctive social model, their ability to innovate on matters like drug policy. In both countries, the majority (technical difficulties) gathered strange bedfellows, from right-wing nationalists with an authoritarian streak to romantic leftists who dream of a worker's democracy. It's hard to imagine any treaty that could satisfy all these factions.

This atmosphere of rejection puts outsiders, foreigners, immigrants, people of color in an ambiguous position. In France and Holland, two of the EU's founding members, resentment against the union's newest members, less wealthy countries from eastern Europe, is running high. Today, many manual laborers in western Europe are migrants from the new member countries willing to accept lower wages. In one French town, a Czech company won a contract to renovate the town hall. Their bid was the lowest by far. And much debate in France centered on the image of the Polish plumber, the instant icon of this new migrant class. Did the Polish plumber take away French jobs? Should plumbing cost the same in Poland as in France? Or would more Polish plumbers lead to cheaper plumbing, lower construction costs and faster economic growth?

Lurking behind all this anxiety is the possible entry of Turkey into the EU. Extending the privileges of membership to 70 million Turks, most of them poor, dark-skinned and Muslim, might be beyond the imagination of many, perhaps most, Europeans. But the no vote doesn't just boil down to xenophobia and racism. Many activist groups that combat racism called for a no vote because they fear the constitution exposes Europe to the ravages of unfettered globalization. And Turkish membership has plenty of opponents in the yes camp.

These referendums make clear just how wide the disconnect is between Europe's citizens and their politicians. Eighty percent of Holland's members of parliament supported the treaty, but 60 percent of voters rejected it. In France, the gap was nearly as big. Politicians wrote this treaty. It was their grand design, but European voters now clearly want their leaders to address more practical concerns. The architecture of the house may be brilliant, but who will take care of the plumbing?

GORDON: Siddhartha Mitter is an independent writer on politics and culture. He's based in Boston.

That does it for the program today. To listen to the show, visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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