The depth and ferocity of French and Dutch opposition to the E.U. constitutional treaty undoubtedly caught Europe's political elite by surprise. Now they may be forced to piece together a Plan B, having maintained all along that no such alternative exists.
Opponents of European integration are gleefully anticipating the E.U.'s imminent collapse. Optimists suggest a stronger Europe could emerge. The truth about what happens next probably lies somewhere in between. The E.U. has suffered an unprecedented blow, reflecting a massive miscalculation at the top. But as Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, noted this week, Europe has faced big problems before -- and has usually overcome them.
That might sound a tad complacent. But the drama of the moment can be exaggerated, too, officials suggested. "In France and elsewhere, there was a big debate that reached far beyond the political classes. This is very welcome," a senior European diplomat said Wednesday. "The referendums showed Europe is important to ordinary people. In France the turnout was 70 percent. That's enormous. Of course, there are domestic factors. But for too long political leaders have been saying Europe is important but not asking the people what they think, doing it without them. Now the voters have said we want to be listened to.
"What they actually said is that they want more, not less Europe -- a more social Europe, a more democratic Europe, a different Europe. That's positive," the diplomat said.
Doubts about whether these voters' message will actually be absorbed and acted upon in Brussels and elsewhere potentially undermine such upbeat assessments. Even before the referendum results were known, Euro-enthusiasts were examining ways of implementing key parts of the treaty whatever the verdicts.
Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, argued, for example, that plans to appoint an E.U. "foreign minister" need not be scrapped just because the treaty as a whole might fall. Grant has a good point, even if it does not appear particularly democratic. American neoconservatives will be immensely gratified if Europe retreats into more easily manipulated, opposing camps of nation-states.
A different perspective comes from Asia. China and regional states back a strong Europe as a balancing pole to U.S. unilateralism, although Beijing may try to exploit the E.U.'s confusion to get its way on issues including the arms embargo and textile exports.
For the emerging democracies of eastern Europe, any weakening of collective E.U. confidence and resolve is potentially far more serious. E.U. membership has become an almost existential issue not only for Bulgaria and Romania, due to join in 2007, but also for Turkey, the Balkan states, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Their hopes of membership have been continually raised, often irresponsibly.
But the E.U. now looks to have overreached itself. If Brussels accepts that one of the voters' messages was opposition to further enlargement (and associated large-scale immigration), the geopolitical fallout could be severely destabilizing. Also obscuring the way ahead is the fact that key E.U. governments are badly placed at present to handle the crisis, let alone articulate a revamped European vision.
Germany and Italy are facing elections; French politics are in disarray; and Tony Blair, beset by Euro-skepticism, is a weakened figure. Yet it is Blair, taking on the E.U. presidency next month, who must try to sort out the various interpretations of what the voters really meant -- and where Europe goes now.
Despite these myriad, unpredictable ramifications, the votes usefully focused minds on what was most important, according to the senior European diplomat. "Everyone knows the E.U. has brought peace to Europe. Everyone knows it has brought prosperity, although that prosperity is not equally shared. Everyone knows that individual countries cannot act alone when it comes to problems like the Middle East or Iran or crime and illegal immigration. They must work together. There is no choice.
"Europe must answer the people's questions. They want to know who is in charge of my life? Who decides? But the ambition for Europe is still there."