The French people have cast their vote. They have elected by a surprisingly large margin, not to accept the European Constitution.
From the beginning of the European project, France has been at the heart of pushing for greater integration.
A 55 percent vote against the adoption of the Constitution has come as a blow to France’s political establishment and will present a major challenge to Europe’s politicos generally, as they seek to discern where to take Europe next.
The Constitution was intended to bring a greater clarity and agreement regarding the values on which European societies are based and to outline a vision for Europe’s future role in the world.
In the end, it has so far at least produced disharmony and confusion. And this is not because people have disagreed with its core statements.
Most people have not even read it – and that should tell us something.
Much of the French “non” vote has been attributed to a concern that the Constitution was moving Europe too far toward an economic free-market, capitalist block.
The concern was that not enough was being done to protect mainland Europe’s protective trade institutions and much vaunted welfare state.
I fail to see how a document which is more than 300 pages in length could be described as favouring a laissez-faire approach to anything!
The sheer size of the Constitution should give us some idea of which way the wind blows for its major architects.
They want to solve every problem, on paper, before anyone goes anywhere!
This, for me, is a reflection of the real challenge facing European societies today. They are so over-regulated that they stifle creative endeavour, risk-taking, decision-making and forward movement. Over the years I have lived in Europe, I have worked with many young adult people in a number of nations.
It has been nothing short of heart-breaking to watch, at times, as some of the most creative of them have lost their edge as they have moved into their mid- to late-20s or early-30s.
Their passion to establish new businesses and service organisations has all too often been quenched because of a perception that it’s just too difficult and too costly to bring change. In the end, it’s safer to stay within the cosy confines of the status quo.
Social democracy is a good experiment which has simply gone too far.
Part of the problem is that too many people across Europe are employed directly or indirectly by the public sector.
The social democratic model is purportedly based on the notion that society should protect its weakest members. That is a laudable ideal, but this is not the way social democracy is working in most parts of Europe.
The primary benefit of social democracy is in fact the protection of the right of the middle classes to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle from cradle-to-grave, with a secure job, all provided not by personal enterprise but by state regulation.
The problem is not the middle-class itself. It represents the major part of most European populations – at least, that’s true of the long-established European states – and its prosperity is not necessarily bad thing.
It’s hard to offer help to poorer parts of the world, if you can’t feed your own. Europe is able to offer help, as it so often does so generously, because it occupies a position of economic strength.
The problem is the safety-first, I-deserve-this, protectionist mentality which underwrites social democracy. ‘Don’t rock the boat,’ it says. ‘We don’t want you to challenge the status quo; we like things just as they are. If you’re interested in change, do it somewhere else.’
Political correctness, which is so rife throughout Europe, is just another expression of this same ultra-protectionist attitude. It says: if everyone is grey on all the issues, there will be no bright colours left to challenge the rest of us.
Political correctness kills reformers before they are born.
The most visible expression of a protectionist mentality in society is burgeoning bureaucracy. Administration will always expand to feed the number of people working within it.
Governments favour large bureaucracies because they provide high rates of employment.
They also help governments to extend their reach into people’s lives. Governments, by their very nature, grow. When a nation has reached the limit of its geographical expansion, the only way for the political establishment to grow is to increase its influence over the people it already governs.
What we really need in Europe is not a 300-page Constitution.
What we need is a return to vibrant, forward-looking, risk-taking thinking which is not preoccupied with codifying or institutionalising the status quo, but finding new ways to build on proven values.
We have just celebrated the 60th anniversary of the end all the Second World War in Europe. Surely, this is an ideal time to recall some of the values which underwrote the victory over Nazism.
Europe is free today because so many people of that generation adopted a roll-up-your-sleeves approach to changing the future, rather than drifting along with the comfortable tide or protecting the status quo.
So many of them took an attitude of self-sacrifice, rather than myopic, consumerist, self-interest which maintains the status quo.
In Europe, what we should be saying ‘non’ to is an attitude which says that the rest of the world owes us something.
In Europe, we have an opportunity to become a voice of freedom and creative enterprise in the world – with social responsibility.
We must roll up our sleeves again and set out to build better communities, rather than just enjoying a comfortable personal life.