The Washington Times

Guess who’s in the doghouse in Europe? French President Jacques Chirac, that’s who.

France is scheduled to vote May 29 on the European Constitutional Treaty, the latest step in the process of European integration. The Constitutional Treaty is something of a hybrid: more than just the latest international treaty binding the countries of Europe, less than a full-dress constitution creating the institutional architecture of a single sovereign state. It’s also about 70,000 words long, which means it is not exactly popular reading matter.

To take effect, the Constitutional Treaty has to be ratified by all 25 members of the European Union. But it’s up to national governments to decide what the ratification procedures will be. Most have chosen to put the matter to national legislatures. A half-dozen will put the matter directly to voters. Mr. Chirac decided to go down the latter road.

And now recent polls have been showing a majority of French voters actually opposed to the Constitutional Treaty. This is, in certain respects, rich. After all, if there is a headquarters for the sentiment that Europe should unite in order to provide a counterweight to the excessive influence of the United States in world affairs, it is the Elysees Palace of Jacques Chirac. Whether or not the Constitutional Treaty is properly understood as a means to that end (and in my view it isn’t), if it fails, it will take the wind out of the sails of all those who have been pursuing the deeper and wider integration of Europe.

At a conference last week sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, European participants made clear that the result of the collapse of the Constitutional Treaty would be a demoralized and inward-looking Europe for years to come. Turkey’s prospect for membership in the European Union would suddenly worsen. The potential for upgrading relations with emerging democracies in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as in the Balkans, would drastically diminish. The likelihood of additional fractiousness in internal European deliberations would increase, with greater resulting difficulty in reaching common positions both internally and in foreign affairs.

And all this, thanks to the president of France. Mr. Chirac could have put the ratification to the National Assembly, a vote he would surely have won with ease. Instead, in the view gaining currency in elite Europe, out of arrogance, he chose the path of a referendum, certain he could deliver the French public. Once again, in this view, Mr. Chirac has overpromised and is coming up short on delivery. If the referendum goes down in France, Mr. Chirac will get the blame for the biggest reversal of fortune in Europe in decades.

Not that the results will be comparable with the descent of the Iron Curtain. The failure of the Constitutional Treaty, should that take place, will not undo the efforts at European integration that have been successful to date, nor will it undo the determination of Europeans to continue their mutual efforts on behalf of peace and prosperity. Nor is the road to ratification smooth and clear apart from what the French decide. Britain, traditionally the most euroskeptical EU member, is a huge question mark. But that the process might falter in France, of all places, well, that would be a cruel blow.

The referendum in France might yet pass. French officials have been noting hopefully that while polls still show a majority opposed, the percentage has been declining. But what this French hiccup really shows, I think, is the death of the neo-Gaullist vision of Europe as a counterweight to the United States, truly Mr. Chirac’s dream.

In this vision, a united Europe, newly strengthened by the ratification of its Constitutional Treaty (which provides for the creation of a European foreign minister and diplomatic corps). It would also be strengthened by the solid backing of the European people of the sort that manifested itself in support for the position of Mr. Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in opposition to the Iraq war, would be well positioned to assert its influence against that of the United States, creating a truly multipolar international order. The United States would have no choice but to accept a corresponding diminution in influence across a range of areas, from the Middle East peace process to Iran to trade policy.

That is simply not what is at stake in the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty. It’s a fantasy about a world in which a nation, or even “Europe,” is somehow able to balance the power of the United States without actually going to the trouble and expense of acquiring the instruments of power which neither France nor the European Union has any intention of doing.

This is, of course, fine with the United States which has also shown, particularly in the second Bush term, that it is influenced by the concerns of its European allies. Speaking of irony, imagine Mr. Bush helping Europeans pick up the pieces of their project of integration after its rejection in France.