France's decisive rejection of the European Union's draft constitution in a Sunday referendum has catapulted the 25-nation bloc into a period of both political and economic uncertainty. The EU has been cast into uncharted waters as it tries to figure out how it should deal with the debacle.
French voters, worried about unemployment and a withering away of their country's welfare state, dealt a potentially fatal blow to the EU's constitution in what turned out to be a head-on collision between the hopes of Europe's political elite and the fears of a large segment of the French public.
EU leaders are saying the show must go on, that the ratification of the constitutional treaty designed to streamline decision-making in the 25-member bloc, must continue until every nation has had its say. Nine countries, including such heavyweights as Germany, Italy and Spain have already approved the charter. Only France has rejected it, but another referendum on Wednesday in the Netherlands is widely expected to result in a second "no" vote.
Technically, if one member state rejects the constitution, it will not go into effect. But EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson says that, whatever the French think about it, it is still too early to declare the constitution dead.
"France, whilst important, does not have a veto over everyone else's actions. So, whilst the French government will clearly reflect on this result, other member states will want to go ahead and consider the treaty."
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, says any re-negotiation of the treaty to satisfy the French nay-sayers is out of the question.
He says that, "among those who voted against the constitution in France, there were those who wanted to stop European integration altogether and those who wanted to speed it up." He asks, "how do you deal with such a contradiction? You cannot renegotiate the treaty under such conditions," he says, adding "We have to reflect on these French and possibly European contradictions."
Mr. Juncker is hosting a summit in Brussels next month that was originally supposed to thrash out the EU's next seven-year budget. But with the referendum results in France and a probable September election in Germany, any deal requiring sacrifices from either of those two countries, and from the Netherlands as well, seems out of the question. One of Mr. Juncker's aides says he thinks the summit will be dedicated entirely to finding a way out of the constitutional impasse.
Another key question is whether an EU in stagnation mode will be ready to begin membership negotiations in October with Turkey. Strong antipathy to Turkish membership in France and the Netherlands is likely to pick up support from Germany, if the conservative opposition wins the national election there. And what about Romania and Bulgaria, which are due to join in 2007? Will their accession be put on hold too?
One of the elements that played strongly in the French referendum was a sense among voters that they were not consulted by the political elite on such decisions as enlarging the EU last year to include ten new, mostly ex-communist states in Eastern Europe. Neither did they have a say in EU rules that impose discipline on member states' spending and inflation levels.
Margot Wallstrom, the deputy head of the European Commission, the EU's executive body, says that, although the constitution was meant to make EU decision-making more democratic and open, it failed to take into account the concerns of ordinary citizens.
"I think that we have underestimated the fact that citizens also want to have a say and want to be involved," she said. "And I think that we have to realize that the European Union cannot stay a project for a small political elite, but we have to anchor it much better."
The reason most cited by French voters for their opposition to the constitution was that the document referred to opening the European market further to competition. That, to many of them, was proof enough that the low-cost, low-tax economies of Eastern Europe would siphon away their jobs.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country takes over the EU presidency in July, says he will try to focus more on jobs and less on the constitution.
"Underneath all this, there is a more profound question, which is about the future of Europe, and, in particular, the future of the European economy and how it deals with the modern pressures of globalization and technological change and how we ensure that the European economy is strong and is prosperous in the face of those challenges," said Mr. Blair.
The problem is that while Britain, the Scandinavian countries, the Dutch and the Eastern Europeans want a Europe of open markets, France has voted for a Europe in which national governments have the power to intervene to protect their citizens against open markets. Europe has reached a fork in the road. Does it choose open markets with all the painful adjustments they entail? Or does it try to preserve the welfare state where everybody has a social blanket, even though it is no longer economically sustainable?
Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute of International Relations, says the most likely outcome is that each country will go its own way.
"Today, New Europe is full of dynamism, energy," said Mr. Moisi. "It looks closer to Asia in terms of energy, and it is in Poland and the Baltic republics, maybe in Great Britain. And there is Old Europe, in France, Germany and Italy, trying to protect a social model that no longer exists."
Diplomats in Brussels say one side effect of the EU's new post-French referendum uncertainty is likely to be a prolonged period of introspection that will distract it from major foreign policy questions like Iran's nuclear program and the proposed lifting of its arms embargo on China.
One diplomat recalls that, in the early 1990s, the EU failed to deal adequately with the violent break-up of Yugoslavia partly because it was so concentrated on such internal matters as Europe's monetary union.