For the past decade EU enlargement was the drug that kept the European project going at full steam towards economic and political integration.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in the beginning of the nineties, European integration was a dream for those generations brought up in a continent divided by a cold iron curtain that kept countries on both sides of the divide on edge.
Enlargement did happen when in December 2002 in Copenhagen the 10 applicants, including the former enemies from Eastern Europe secured membership after brokering a last-minute deal. Europe was one again, a smiling Danish prime minister had triumphantly announced in the early hours of a Saturday.
The politicians and visionaries who drove the European Union until that day had reached panacea.
It is within this context that the French vote on Sunday is akin to cold turkey. The relentless march towards further economic and political integration was suddenly jolted by none other than one of the founding members of the EU project.
The French rejection of the EU Constitution does not mean the European project is dead. But the process has been shaken. The resounding no is a wake-up call for all politicians. It should not be given the cold shoulder and adopting a business-as-usual attitude will only serve to alienate the people further from the ideals set out by Europe’s founding fathers after the Second World War.
The EU Constitution sought to create a better balance of power in a bloc that swelled from 15 to 25, outlining the governing structures and the areas of competence of the Union. It was a compromise between pro-federalist leftists and the more nationalist rightists. It also sought to balance the strengths of the individual member states, respecting size but also observing national sovereignty.
The major failing of the Constitution is however, its very own size. A 500-page document is anything but user-friendly. No other Constitution in the world is as long and the intricate detail it entered into made people suspicious of a Union where power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of face-less bureaucrats in Brussels.
Europe can never have a federal structure like the United States. The nation state is still a powerful concept and any treaty binding the 25 states will have to respect that character.
This posits a dilemma. An EU that functions in an economically effective way on the world stage is only possible if further integration takes place. Europe cannot succeed in its race against the US, Japan, China, India and South East Asia if the countries that form the Union are eternally competing between themselves.
The former Commission President Romano Prodi once said that to succeed economically the EU had to adopt two important measures: tax harmonisation and one working language. Both are very contentious issues since they strike at the very heart of the nation state and create immense problems for smaller countries like Malta.
After the French no, Europe’s leaders have to ponder whether the continent needs more of Brussels, meaning further integration, or less. More means higher standards across the board, a bigger market and citizen rights that are guaranteed in all member states. It also means a slower moving Europe that takes its time to decide on issues that cut across the interests of different States. Whether Europe can afford to be slow-moving is another issue altogether.
After experiencing cold turkey it’s back to the drawing board of history hopefully to come up with a leaner Constitution that finds a happier balance between the sovereign state and integration.
Whatever happens from now on, one thing is certain. The project has to be driven by politicians in tune with public sentiment and not faceless bureaucrats on fat salaries.