Lessons to be learned from French vote

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2005, 12:00am

France's resounding rejection of the draft constitution for the European Union has been as much a lesson for the members of other regional groupings as for Europe's leaders. Anyone eyeing the EU as a model for nations to integrate their policies is now having second thoughts.

For the French, the matter was not so much that the concept of a united Europe was wrong; it was more one of how far economic and political integration should go. In essence, the 'no' vote was driven by domestic concerns - dislike of the policies of President Jacques Chirac, worry about a flood of cheap labour and goods from new EU members and fears of diminishing French influence in Europe.

Few people probably read the constitution, which brought together the treaties and agreements marking the evolution of the EU. It aimed to formalise an arrangement that began in 1957 when Belgium, West Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy and the Netherlands created the European Economic Community to bring down trade barriers and form a 'common market'.

Over the decades, the nations moved closer, brought in more members and renamed it the EU, turning to social and political issues as well as economic ones.

Globalisation, especially through competition from the United States, drove integration policies. A high point was reached in 2002 when 12 states scrapped their currencies and introduced the euro. But the most far-reaching development came last year, when the EU enlarged from 15 members to 25 with the joining of nations that were less economically developed, having been mostly under the cold war control of the Soviet Union. Their membership made an EU constitution necessary and led to the crisis of France's rejection.

EU leaders have said that ratification must continue regardless; people in the Netherlands vote tomorrow in the next stage of a process that ends in November next year. A summit will be held next month to decide what to do.

There is no doubt, though, that plans to create an economic, social and political grouping to rival the US, Japan or China have been severely dented.

Any such union does not evolve quickly, especially when people of so many diverse cultures are involved. Like the French, none wants to give up their identity entirely and nor should they.

There was much less diversity when the first US constitution was unveiled in 1776, yet it was another 11 years before a draft acceptable to all parties was approved. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, African Union and other groupings which have admired the growing power of the EU and wished to emulate it need to be mindful of France's lesson.

Integration is good when it is for the right reasons, but national considerations must be taken into account.