An EU Referendum Cheat Sheet

What are the French voting about?

Like many non-Europeans, you may be fuzzily aware that some important voting is happening on the Continent, but you haven’t a clue what it’s all about. Having heard, perhaps, that this voting could transform geopolitics as we know it, you may have tried to understand but gotten bogged down in the face of the document under debate: a 448-article constitution that is about as exciting as a telephone book. (Many Europeans find themselves in the same situation.) You may have read that the European Union is facing the most critical days in its history, or that May 29 will be a turning point, but you’re wondering if this has any implications for your vacation in Tuscany.

Herewith, then, is your European Constitution cheat sheet. The French public will vote to accept or reject this constitution in a national referendum on Sunday, May 29, and the Dutch will do the same on Wednesday, June 1. Polls in both countries currently favor rejection.

What does the constitution do?

Some would say not much. According to Charles Kupchan, director of Europe Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations, 70 percent to 80 percent of the new document simply repeats rules laid out in previous treaties.

The European Union was built on treaties, beginning with a 1951 agreement among six nations to cooperate on coal and steel production. Now it’s a club of 25 countries that have torn down internal trade barriers and cooperate, to some extent, on everything from defense policy to jurisprudence.

The new provisions in the constitution include changes to voting rules for the European Council. (Each member state has a seat on the council, which, together with the European Parliament, decides on legislation.) A smaller majority would be needed for most council decisions, and fewer areas would require a unanimous vote.

The constitution also calls for more defense cooperation and the creation of an EU diplomatic corps and foreign minister. It would thus finally provide an answer to a question usually attributed to Henry Kissinger: “Who do I call when I want to talk to Europe?”

Did France have to have a referendum?

No. Some countries are taking a parliamentary vote. French President Jacques Chirac, who is staunchly pro-integration, promised a plebiscite anyway.

If all 25 countries have to ratify the constitution, why is France’s vote getting so much attention?

France has been at the political and psychological core of the European Union since the beginning. It was one of the six founding members and, along with Germany, has been driving integration since the 1950s.

If France bolts, says Kupchan, “It would be a little like Alexander Hamilton or James Madison deciding they didn’t want a union after all.”

If France practically invented the European Union, why do polls show the “no” camp in the lead?

In short, the Polish plumber. In France, he has become the symbol of all that is wrong with the European Union. He represents poor people from the east coming to work longer and harder for less money. (Poland is one of the 10 nations that gained membership last year.)

Aside from the plumber, those planning to vote “no” express a grab bag of grievances, few of which have much to do with the constitution itself.

Some are disgruntled with Chirac and ruling elites generally. Some are frustrated with an unemployment rate of 10 percent, for which they blame an enlarging European Union rather than their own expensive labor laws.

Some in the “non” camp say the constitution enshrines a Europe that is not socialist enough—even though it protects such things as the right of workers to receive paid vacation.

Others say the constitution will create a “United States of Europe,” but this argument seems to boil down to, “If something is like the United States of America, it’s bad.”

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a Green member of the European Parliament, described the “no” camp as a “strange alliance of antiglobalization activists, Communists and neo-fascists.”

What’s Turkey got to do with it?

Officially nothing, but the prospect of a Muslim nation of nearly 70 million people some day joining the union has given Europeans a collective case of the heebie-jeebies, contributing to greater Euro-skepticism.

What will happen if the French vote no?

Practically speaking, there is no plan.

Euro-cheerleader Mark Leonard (author of Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century) recently argued in Foreign Policy that things will move ahead just fine even if the French vote no. “The only thing that will be destroyed by France’s voting no will be its claims to a leadership role within Europe,” he wrote.

In the past, when Ireland and Denmark rejected important EU treaties, the rest of the union simply went ahead without them. The two countries later held second referendums in which they voted yes.

But France’s heft is such that if it says no, the constitution might be scrapped. European leaders would then have to go through a time-consuming wrangle to come up with a new, downsized document.

Is ratification good for the United States?

That depends.

Some staunch hawks might prefer a weaker and more decentralized Europe, but Kupchan believes it is very much in America’s interest to see the constitution implemented. “The United States desperately needs help in the world, and we’re finding that out in spades in Iraq. There’s no better place to look for that than to Europe,” he says. “A Europe that has a more unified position on foreign and security policy and a greater capacity to project military as well as soft power will make a better partner of the United States.”

He points out that the European Union has essentially taken over security responsibility for the Balkans, allowing the United States to focus on the Middle East. It has also played a critical role in the spread of democracy and capitalism through central Europe.

Why are any Europeans willing to give up sovereignty to a supranational body?

This is a question that leaves many American pundits a-splutter. European skeptics go nuts too, especially when they come across some of the wackier bits of Brussels legislation, which include excessive food-labeling requirements and micromanaged workplace safety rules. (There was a “Rickety Ladders Directive.”) On the other hand, suspicion of Brussels has also generated a number of urban legends: A Czech TV station ran a story alleging that the European Union had ordered pig farmers to provide their livestock with toys, causing the EU representative in Prague to issue a denial.

For much of the last half-century, memories of war fueled the drive to integrate. European leaders wanted to make sure national boundaries would never again cause bloodshed. Now, says Kupchan, “A 20-year-old Frenchman voting on the referendum needs a more compelling reason than WWII.” Hence the current crisis of faith.

Another reason Europeans are willing to delegate to Brussels is that, flag and national anthem aside, the European Union doesn’t look or act like a nation. As Leonard writes in his book, “[T]he EU is a skeletal organization that leaves the real power to its member-states, which are responsible for implementing and overseeing the vast majority of the European Union’s activities.”

What about Tuscany?

“Yes” votes in France and the Netherlands will likely boost confidence in the euro, causing it to rise to even greater heights against the feeble dollar, of which you will need more to buy a bottle of chianti.