EU Constitution Or Else . . . Doin’ the Yugoslav Breakdown*?

(Footnote out of the way first: * As opposed to doin’ the Foggy Mountain Breakdown, by Earl Scruggs – and folks, that link there actually takes you to a webpage showing the guitar fingerings for playing this timeless bluegrass classic!)

Prospects for a “Yes” vote on the proposed EU Constitutional Treaty are under pressure these days not only in France but also here in the Netherlands. Well, at least “Yes” is currently ahead of “No” by only about ten percentage points in the polls, which is taken to be a worrying sign. So cabinet ministers are swinging into action to tout the Constitution, including Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner who, as reported in the newspaper Trouw (registration required) has warned against the danger of war if the Constitution is not adopted.

War? Yes, war: Because without the more authoritative and more effective EU institutions that the Constitution will supposedly bring into being, Europe’s inherent “irritation, suspicion, and distrust” threatens to escalate out of control. Just like happened in the mid-1990s in the Balkans: “Yugoslavia was more integrated than the [European] Union is now, but bad will and the inability to stifle hidden irritations and rivalry led in a short time to war.”

As the Trouw article points out (no specific by-line), former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl used to say something similar, namely that war threatened to return to the European continent if it failed to “unite.” Crucially, though, what did he mean by “unite”? Kohl obviously did not mean adopting the Constitution, since that was a project that mostly went forward after he was out of office. Would he have in fact meant by “unite” adopting the Constitution? He’s still around and mentally alert, but I have heard no such commentary from him yet. In any event, somehow apocalyptic talk of “war” in relation to Europe seems more appropriate coming from a leading politician of the country that started so many 20th-century European wars – and suffered so much from them – than from a Dutchman.


Going back to Donner, it should be no surprise that he also dismissed as unimportant any considerations as to whether adopting the proposed Constitutional Treaty will actually be good for the Netherlands. “That is entirely beside the point that we in Europe live very closely with one another. In order to be able to live together in peace, we need authorities who can settle disputes, set rules and operate in the general interest.” He also opined that the process whereby governmental competences steadily migrate from the national to the European level is basically unavoidable. That will be surprising news to many, but probably a confirmation of the worst fears of many more others.

In an accompanying editorial (Donner Kicks off European Campaign Too Heavily with a Frightening Scenario – registration required), the Trouw editors express regret over Donner’s sensationalist approach and dismiss his Yugoslavia analogy. The history of European unity has been much less abrupt than the sudden creation in 1918 of what was then called the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes,” and indeed features notable periods of stagnation and even crisis as well as strides forwards. I suppose this experience is supposed to have given that European process a sort of doggedness and durability, in contrast to Yugoslav brittleness. “In the light of that it is not acceptable that we will descend to barbarity if the Union is not immediately successful in providing itself with a more solid constitutional basis,” the Trouw editors pronounce.


But let’s now take this occasion to remind ourselves that the Netherlands is a relatively pissant (a perfectly-acceptable word for common use in polite society) influence within the EU, a “middle-sized” power at best. The truly big players are of course headed by Germany and France, which is why a far more significant tale (if not necessarily more interesting) would be that of the TV “debate” French president Chirac appeared in last Thursday in order to push the Constitutional Treaty among his countrymen, which is in big trouble there with “No” running in polls at greater than 50%. I add those quotation marks to “debate” because in actuality Chirac chose to appear on TV and make his pro-Constitution case before a group of mostly young people.

(“Young” but most assuredly adult; you can at least rest easy that Chirac didn’t simply ship in children from the local Paris kindergarten to be his audience, although – apart from the usual shrieks, tantrums, and calls for one’s bottle that that would have entailed – it’s hard to see how it made any difference. Because, let’s face it, it’s hard to imagine a bunch of twenty-somethings getting up the gumption to really challenge the in-his-seventies President of the Republique with any tough questions. The latest Economist (free article!) points out that at least former French president Francois Mitterand had the guts to debate on TV a real-life intelligent opponent, namely Philippe Seguin, prior to the 1992 French referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, in which “Yes” barely squeaked out on top. Oh well, at least this is better than the Bush Administration’s “rent-an-audience” method for the President’s current Social Security privatization “whirlwind” tour, with pre-screened spectators and security goons standing by to eject whoever might have slipped between the cracks, all of this paid for by federal public funds – i.e. your American tax dollars, whether they’ll let you in to attend or not – by the way. As we saw on three occasions last fall, one-on-one debate is not the President’s strong suit by far.)

Anyway, so Chirac showed up on TV in front of this young audience, all presidentially magisterial, but by doing so he seemed to have done the French “Yes” cause little good, and indeed might have done it harm. You can read the review of this event in the Guardian (reference thanks to the New York Times), but naturally there was comment all up-and-down the French press as well. I know; I gathered quite a few links. But I haven’t had time to use them to put together for you the usual sort of EuroSavant compilation and commentary that you’re all used to. And, I’m afraid, I won’t have time, not before that Chirac TV “debate” becomes “old news” indeed. (Actually, as usual, writing this post has taken more time than I expected. These days I often approach my computer keyboard with the resolution “This will be a brief post,” but it doesn’t turn out that way.) All of this is a rather bad sign for the health of this weblog, and I’m sorry about it.

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