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Underneath the smiling photo ops and upbeat press conferences, it was clear to Europe's leaders that they have even more work cut out for them. In several countries planning referendums, according to recent polls, the constitution stands a good chance of defeat. "The referendum process will be difficult," says Peter Ludlow, director of EuroComment and former director of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "One, two or three countries might reject. If a smaller country rejects, arrangements can be made. But the big problem will be Britain."
There, Blair faces an uphill battle. The Sun, Britain's largest tabloid, called him blair the betrayer for going along with the treaty. Three-quarters of Britons surveyed last week by the New Frontiers Foundation, an anticonstitution group, agreed that "Britain will be more prosperous and secure if we keep the pound, say no to the constitution, and insist on the E.U. giving back powers over trade, the economy and other things, to its member states." Blair came to office determined to put Britain "at the heart of Europe," but his loyalty to George W. Bush's Iraq policy has damaged his ability to push ahead on his European policies. Determined not to be labeled a sellout by British Euro-skeptics, he packaged his work in Brussels as a series of valiant sorties to preserve British sovereignty.
Pro-E.U. pundits in France, Belgium, Spain and Italy assailed Blair for watering down the pact. "The greatest paradox of the European Union," said Le Figaro, "is that its most skeptical member calls the shots." French President Jacques Chirac helped Blair's reputation back home by denouncing his intransigence. "The ambitions for the constitution are reduced especially on tax and social security by the clear position of one country … the United Kingdom," he complained. Blair's spokesman regretted Chirac's remarks and pointedly alluded to Britain's allies among the new eastern members like Poland and the Czech Republic who are now diluting France and Germany's historic domination of the E.U. "We are operating in a Europe of 25, not a Europe of six or two or one," he said. But British backers of the constitution lament that by portraying E.U. negotiations as fights against wily foreigners, Blair has allowed anti-E.U. opinion in Britain to grow and harden.
British Euro-skeptics think he's using red-meat rhetoric to conceal a major shift of power to Brussels. "The British government is clearly determined just to bulldoze through the facts and hope the media are too stupid to check the text," says Dominic Cummings, director of the New Frontiers Foundation, who counts at least 43 places where the constitution abrogates a current national veto over E.U. actions. [an error occurred while processing this directive] With national powers slowly accreting to remote institutions, he fears Britain and the rest of the E.U. will see democracy atrophy and economies settle into overregulated mediocrity.
Blair has the toughest sales job on the constitution, but he's not the only one. Even Chirac has resisted a referendum, though 74% of French people polled want one. Chirac apparently worries that a referendum could become a low-turnout vehicle for another protest vote. "The sad truth is, our politicians have done little to explain why various European reforms are productive and necessary," says Philippe Moreau-Defarges, senior fellow at the French Institute on Foreign Relations in Paris. "The average French voter has no idea what the proposed constitution is about." He thinks Chirac should embrace a referendum fight as a chance to connect voters more seriously to the E.U.
But Margot Wallström, the Swedish E.U. environment Commissioner, believes the growth of Euro-skepticism and apathy evident in the election results should prod a more systematic rethink of the E.U.'s future. "Politicians should show greater respect for the people and move forward more slowly in the European integration process," she told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Industri. "In the European Commission, we must accept that more power should be given back to the member states."
What happens if some countries don't ratify the constitution? Although technically they all must do so for it to take effect, those who reject may find the others devise a way to go on without them. Charles Grant, the pro-E.U. director of the Centre for European Reform in London, thinks France, Germany and several others will form a core group determined to integrate harder and faster. "The whole point for them is the institutions, not specific policies," he says. Assuming the E.U. continues as is, they will vote as a bloc inside it, begin to integrate in foreign affairs, justice and taxation, and start to isolate the refuseniks who would deploy their remaining vetoes in a climate of growing acrimony. That would be a Europe not just of two speeds but a whole gearbox, including reverse.
Whether that would be such a bad thing depends, of course, on what you expect of the E.U. The truth is, the E.U. already operates at several speeds. Britain remains outside the euro zone but that hasn't hurt the British economy (indeed, maybe it's helped) or the euro. E.U. member states bitterly disagreed about the war in Iraq, but still managed to agree on their new constitution. Clearly, traveling at different speeds doesn't mean that the European project comes to a halt.
But if the E.U. wants to achieve some of its grander dreams like having a strong say in global security policy, something France clearly favors, or a common vision on how European social values can be married to world-class economic competitiveness then all the big countries have to march to the same drummer. And that kind of deeper union is something no constitution, no matter how finely crafted, can create.