Liberal Menace or Menace to Liberalism?

The perplexing debate over Europe's constitution


This Sunday, the European Union's draft constitution risks rejection or ratification at the hands of mercurial French voters. Three days later, it stares down a similar fate at the mercy of an equally fickle Dutch electorate. A "thumbs down" from either country would scuttle the grandiose document, which requires ratification by every member state to take effect.

Unlike most Americans who venture dans la campagne to soak up the quaint, rustic charm, The Washington Post's Glenn Frankel waded deep into the Loire valley in search of the lurking Frenchman who intends, with quiet resolve, to vote "non." The discovery of this political animal has come "to the great surprise of the political elite here." Frankel found him in an ex-paratrooper with a grandiloquent name that belies the vocation of a man who works the soil. A French farmer, Pierre Mercier de Beaurouvre, sits before his kitchen table and voices his apprehension that a ratified constitution will unleash a flood of regulations, directives and duties from Brussels that will render the domestic French feast spread before him, of "garlicky sausages," duck pâte and gherkins, a distant memory.

France's "partisans for the no" are not confined to the conservative countryside. A healthy majority in favor of ratification, until recently taken for granted by French pundits, is now in serious doubt.

Cosmopolitan city-dwellers, fearing a "savage capitalism" borne of "unbridled liberalism" unleashed by a new constitution, are contemplating the unthinkable: voting "non" this Sunday. When President Jacques Chirac hosted a televised discussion to pitch the E.U. constitution to skeptical French youth, a young Frenchman challenged his President, asserting that the document's "text follows a liberal logic."

Of course, that's not the "liberalism" that we know in the United States, Richard Bernstein reminds us in The New York Times, but liberalism, or "ultraliberalism" as it is sometimes hyperbolically vilified, "in the European sense of Anglo-American style free-market economics, which, many people contend, would strip away social protections."

Euroskeptics on the left may harbor a profoundly delusional vision of a European super state that manages to propagate "liberalism" and won't stifle European markets. But the centralization of economic regulation that the constitution seeks to codify is not recognizably liberal in the European sense of the term. In fact, Britain's famously Europhilic Liberal Democrats have stepped back from their previous championing of all things European and now advocate a rigorous review of the E.U.'s existing powers, refusing to rule out repatriating some of those to the various member states.

In France, respectable opinion in the mainstream press is relentlessly pro-ratification. And though each is hounded by ambitious, high profile dissenters within their ranks, both major parties, President Chirac's Gaullist-rooted U.M.P. and the opposition Socialists, are vigorously campaigning for a "oui" vote.

When mild criticism of—let alone outright opposition to—the European Union and its nebulously defined mandate is consigned without the bounds of polite debate, inevitably forces that are otherwise relegated to the margins will exploit the significant Euroskepticism that smolders in every E.U. member nation. The significance of the most recent French presidential elections seems to have eluded "the political elite here."

In 2002 when the National Front's leader, Jean-Marie LePen, catapulted past the Socialists and into a runoff with Jacques Chirac, commentators across the political spectrum stumbled over themselves to denounce LePen and his xenophobic, neo-Fascist politics. In the end, they needn't have shouted themselves hoarse. In the second round of voting, LePen managed to pick up less than a percentage point. Chirac crushed him, gaining four-fifths of the vote. But not every LePen voter was registering only his animus against immigrants. The major candidates were all confirmed Euro-enthusiasts, and LePen, decidedly, was not. (Perhaps taking his cues from the French press, some New York Times editor selected a photo to accompany Bernstein's article that depicts an angry, drab "non" poster from the National Front juxtaposed with a "oui" placard featuring an angelic little girl, looking toward her Euro-future.)

But this cavalier dismissal by "elite opinion" has driven opponents to dig in their heels. Even in the region where Chirac cut his political teeth, local notables are protesting that they "'cannot stomach' seeing the country's political elite—from the Left and Right—campaigning for the Yes vote hand in hand."

On the bright side, all this confused talk of a liberal menace has inspired a re-evaluation of once-fashionable continental anti-capitalism in one notorious ex-Sixties radical. As a profiler in the UK's Independent puts it: "Danny the Red has become Danny the Blue (with Yellow Stars)." In May of 1968, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a student agitator, was the hero of the left-wing uprising that nearly toppled de Gaulle's government. Today, he sits in Strasbourg representing the German Greens and postures as a reborn "'liberal-libertarian' ecologist and militant pro-European" while lecturing the French Left that "no one has dared to tell them that we live in a world of market forces." Yet it is instructive to note that after that bold declaration, Cohn-Bendit immediately demurs that he "does not mean that you have to accept the extreme religion of Thatcherism or even Blairism." Rather, he reassures his former French comrades who might be considering a "non" vote that under the E.U.'s benevolent watch, "market forces can be married with social responsibility, a social market." That is hardly a recipe for "unbridled liberalism."

In the Netherlands, a liberalism that is more recognizable to American observers is animating that country's trepidation. Many Dutchmen fear their renowned tolerance for homosexuality and drug use will be vetoed by more conservative Catholic member states, or by the Islamic fundamentalism of some E.U. immigrants, which is already confounding the historic commercial and cultural crossroads.

Advocates of ratification have chided the voters of various political persuasions hailing from various E.U. member states for their manifold, and often dissonant, arguments against this constitution, dismissing their hesitation as unrealistic and obstinately sentimental for a France or Holland, that, in practice—any educated person can plainly see—no longer exists. Like the elected representatives they send to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, however, proponents and opponents alike speak in a host of tongues expressing a multitude of partisan biases.

That very cacophony of arguments on both sides of the debate, reflecting a continent of vastly diverse peoples, faiths, and political traditions, should raise a red flag. Is a constitution that cements the E.U.'s centralized, inflexible decision-making really the most forward-looking, market-savvy, and truly liberal blueprint for a 21st Century Europe?