The Washington Times

The European Constitutional Treaty, which French voters recently rejected solidly and Dutch voters overwhelmingly, is a truly unlovely document. But the project underlying it is not. And while the treaty is, in effect, a dead letter now, reports of the demise of European integration are greatly exaggerated.

Those who have been celebrating the results in France and the Netherlands as deliverance from the European “superstate” are about to learn that in opposing this “constitution,” they were not opposing enough. The failure of the constitutional treaty will not, in fact, cause the disintegration of “Europe” and a new dawn for its component nation-states. And those who mourned the failure of the Constitutional Treaty as the end of the European dream are overstating the damage to the cause of a united Europe from the treaty’s rejection. On the contrary, in the long run, the rejection of this treaty will have been useful to the project of European integration.

The failure of the treaty means that Europe does not go forward in the way proponents had hoped. But the European Union is not thereby undone. All previously ratified treaties remain in force; national governments will continue to look to Brussels as the place for settling the disputes amongst themselves. The European peace continues to stand, a monument to human possibility, and if the way forward is not entirely clear at the moment, there is no way back.

The cost of the rejection of the treaty is real, and commentators who opposed it ought to acknowledge as much, for the sake of their own credibility. It was quite reasonable to be, on balance, in favor of the treaty – or even, on balance, against it. But the number of occasions in politics marked by unambiguous good or simple evil as such are remarkably rare. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe is an example of the former; the rise of National Socialism in Germany of the latter. The politics of the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty is neither.

The cost of the treaty’s defeat will be a Europe turned inward, preoccupied with the question of the management of its own household. For those who hoped a self-confident Europe might have been willing to step forward as a more effective international actor, especially as a partner to the United States, the prospects are worse thanks to the rejection of the treaty. Of course, some Americans will welcome a less effectual European Union, in preference for what the United States can do in conjunction with “coalitions of the willing” drawn from a Europe not overburdened by centralization from Brussels – or for that matter, quite without regard to what “Europe” thinks.

I don’t share the latter view – even though I am at best cautiously optimistic about how much an effective, united Europe can add with regard to global security responsibilities that remain largely American obligations. But those who think that a broken-up Europe will make for better U.S. partners ought to think some more. The first foreign-policy task for European countries is now Europe itself. The time and attention Europe requires of European policymakers will now be much greater than they would have been had the constitutional treaty been chugging along toward ratification. That in turn limits the attention Europe will be able to pay to external matters.

Moreover, the treaty’s failure is likely to have a serious effect on Europe’s “near abroad” in a way that even hard-core American (and some European) Euroskeptics will find uncongenial. The prospects now for Turkey’s eventual membership in the EU, a long-time goal of U.S. policy, are much worse. Likewise, an inward-focused Europe will likely be less effective as a magnet to pull such nations as Ukraine and Georgia into a permanent Western orientation. These are real costs.

Moreover, many (though certainly not all) of the elements of European politics agitating for and benefiting from the failure of the Constitutional Treaty are hardly congenial to U.S. policy. French socialism of the old-fashioned – i.e., communist – variety had a good day at the referendum. Likewise, protectionists: The chance of getting an agreement on agriculture subsidies out of Europe has not improved. And while, of course, immigration is a legitimate issue, not all of those who voted “no” on account of immigration did so with legitimate ends in mind.

But all of that said, supporters of European integration need to take the French and Dutch votes seriously. It won’t do to dismiss the “no” vote. It is a serious indication of a disjunction between elite and popular opinion. European policymakers need to address that disjunction. Part of it will certainly take the form of trying to lead national public opinion in a pro-European direction. The more important part of the task will be to assure Europeans that their leaders are responsive to the people’s concerns.

The project of European integration will be on a sound footing to the extent that it is supported by Europeans themselves, and not otherwise. These referenda show that the support is not now there. Europe’s political class had better get busy.