The rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters this week has raised a host of questions about the future of the European project. But while Euro-optimism absorbed a body blow, Americans may be just waking up to the prospect of a transformed alliance.
Perrspectives has written repeatedly about the rise of the European Union as a economic and strategic counterweight to the United States. That development is tranforming the trans-Atlantic partnership, as growing economic competition (for example, Airbus' market leadership) and geo-strategic divergence (Iraq, arms embargo against China) strain the relationship between the United States and its traditional post-World War II allies.
The results of the voting in France and the Netherlands, though, bring to the fore critical challenges to the EU that have been lurking just under the surface during the recent years of optimism. The EU continued to face major demographic and social issues, even as as the expansion of the EU to 25 members and the rise of the Euro seem to augur a new era of European renaissance. This is reflected in the overwhelming "no" vote on the extremes of both the left and right.
Demographic trends have long been the Achilles' Heel of Europe. Stagnant birth rates in Western Europe and the rapid aging of the populations are offset only by massive immigration, particularly from Muslim nations in North Africa in the Middle East. The tensions have been growing for years in France as its Muslim population has reached 10%. The composition of neighborhoods and cities has changed, impacting schools and employment opportunities in a nation with a checkered past of racial and religious tolerance.
In Holland, the issue is perhaps even more dramatic. Once the European nation most open to immigration, Holland has seen a growing backlash against its burgeoning Muslim immigrant population. The anti-immigration party of the late Pim Fortuyn and the killing of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh by Muslim extremists brought this out into the open. The impact on the constitution vote was clear. The debate over Turkish membership will only highlight it further.
Perhaps more important, though, are considerations of class and the future of the unique Western European social contract. French voters, facing a unemployment near 10%, saw their job prospects and social safety net at risk from competition from workers in the new EU members of Eastern Europe. French and Dutch voters viewed with alarm the free movement of workers and goods across Europe. For them, incomes and education, health, unemployment and retirement benefits all would be jeopardized by the New Europe.
In the wake of the voting, the EU, if not in crisis, is at least pretty rattled. France's Chirac and Germany's Schroeder have been seriously weakened. Shaken ministers in Brussels are exploring alternative approaches for securing the needed unanimous approval of the EU constituion by all 25 member states. While the economic cohesion of the EU continues, the political integration has been delayed.
That delay could be very helpful to the United States. It may provide just the time - and breathing space - for Americans to come to grips with the new Europe and to plan for the future of the trans-Atlantic relationship.