June 01, 2005,
France’s near-landslide rejection of the proposed European constitution on Sunday was splendidly, joyously, and magnificently French the voters did the wrong thing even while doing the right thing. They voted boldly against the Euro constitution under the deluded impression that it was a manifesto for free trade, free markets, and Anglo-Saxon “ultra-liberalism.”
If it had been all of those things, NR would have been tempted to favor it we would, incidentally, have rejected the temptation for reasons advanced below but it was none of them. It had the same mildly approving references to market liberalism that have been in every European treaty since the Treaty of Rome, none of which has prevented the growth of the great sprawling regulatory octopus in Brussels. But this document improved on all its predecessors in its regulatory overreach. Its several hundred pages of detailed proposals were a wish-list of pressure-group items all the way down to the constitutional right of the unemployed to a free job-placement service.
We sympathize with that gallant band of French free-market liberals who see the defeat of the Euro constitution as a symbolic defeat for their own hopes of Anglo-Saxon modernization. But it ain’t so. And they would soon have discovered the fact most painfully if the measure had passed. Let them ask themselves: If President Chirac favored it, how could it have been a progressive document?
If the Euro constitution wasn’t a manifesto of free-market progress, however, what was it?
Well, in the first place, it was a mess. A constitution is supposed to define (and limit) the powers exercised by different branches and levels of government. Such an aim should have been paramount in a constitution that is supposed to be the governing document of 25 previously independent nations. But the EU’s own officials were repeatedly unable to explain which bodies would enjoy which powers under its provisions. Needless to say, if the constitution ever were to go into force, the resulting constitutional confusion would give enormous influence to the already ambitious European courts to write a real constitution granting ever-greater powers to Brussels and themselves.
Second, as The Economist pointed out in a series of merciless editorials, it was a manifesto for centralization. Almost every branch of social and economic policy would be determined by remote bureaucracies in Brussels. The national parliaments of historic nations such as Britain, France, and Spain could do no more than discuss them briefly and pass them into law unamended. As Hayek could have told the drafters, such a structure means that the bureaucrats are able to draw on only a trivial reserve of centralized knowledge expressed in statistics, necessarily forgoing the local and tacit knowledge that is spread throughout the entire community. This results in absurd regulations such as that which, in the interest of animal comfort, closed down most British abattoirs and compelled farmers to transport cattle hundreds of miles in considerable discomfort.
Third, it is undemocratic both by nature and design. Its design allows the commission a body composed exclusively of unelected bureaucrats to retain a monopoly on initiating legislation. As The Economist pointed out two years ago, that gives the commission an advance veto on legislation. For comparison, imagine that the IRS had a veto on initiating tax legislation. Even if it were a democracy designed by John Stuart Mill, however, the fact that a dozen different languages are spoken in all the European institutions, including the parliament, means that no democratic debate is truly possible in them. That, of course, rests on the still more fundamental fact that there is no such animal as a single European people or demos the parliament is an assemblage of ambassadors from 25 different countries. And no demos, no democracy.
are deeply sinister.”
So the Euro constitution was rightly/wrongly rejected by France. And under the rules, which specify its unanimous ratification, that rejection should end the matter. Of course, it has not done so. A procession of European magnificos have announced that the French rejection must not halt the process of ratification or kill the document. Our favorite from a rich selection is the statement by Jean-Claude Juncker, who holds the rotating EU presidency, that the French Yes voters really won because some of the No voters were “voting for more Europe” and “if some of their votes are added to the Yes vote, we have won.” Chicago aldermen should take his correspondence course.
Amusing though these contortions are, they are also deeply sinister. They signify that Europe’s political elites are fundamentally authoritarian; they do not accept the moral right of their masters, the people, to reject elite decisions on European questions. If they were a genuine elite an aristocracy in the original Greek sense that might make sense. As the entire constitutional debate has established, however, they are no more able than their fellow citizens, merely better known. Even in the age of celebrity, that does not give them additional political authority.
America cannot intervene directly and openly in the European constitutional crisis just now beginning. Given the unpopularity of George W. Bush throughout Europe, any reminder from him that democracy is important would not necessarily strike the right note. But we should make known to those nations, those political parties, and those political figures who value their nation’s sovereignty and the democracy it incorporates that the U.S. sympathizes with their cause and will assist them where appropriate. After all, a Europe of strong and successful nations would make a far better ally than a one united around undemocratic institutions and a failing overregulated economy. The Editors