On May 29, voters in France go to the polls for their referendum on the future of the European Constitution.
France has always seen itself as being at the heart of the European project, and various French leaders played a key role in developing the Constitution. Yet recent opinion polls have shown that French people on the whole have mixed feelings about the document and what it represents. They are not alone.
Political leaders in a number of European centres are watching the French outcome with great interest. They realise that if France, with its past Euro-friendly stance, were to vote down the Constitution, it would present the rest of Europe with a dilemma.
Technically, of course, if one member state votes “no” to the Constitution, it is finished and it’s "back to the drawing board" for the architects of integration.
However, a "no" vote would also represent a blow to the forward progress of integration generally. How would Europe’s politicos push for greater integration on a practical level if people rejected the document which is intended to represent the soul of the whole project?
People are not voting on the technicalities of the Constitution -- most people have not read it. A vote against is a comment on the European ideal as a whole.
The EU grew out of the European Economic Community (EEC), which in turn emerged from a trade pact made after World War II. The goal, in the beginning, was to promote cooperation in the use and development of natural resources and other industrial components. Europe’s leaders were desperate, as they rightly should have been, to prevent any recurrence of the two World Wars, which started out as decidedly European affairs.
Bureaucracy tends to feed upon itself. What started as a trade pact soon grew into an administrative giant which covers a great deal of people’s lives. Some Europeans feel that the EU, or whatever it morphs into, will eventually swallow up national identities completely, or at least turn nation-states into emasculated menservants of a supra-national entity.
As the pace of integration grows, studies across Europe have shown that populations are embracing local culture and identity with a great zeal.
Young people, in particular, seem quite happy to call themselves European, while simultaneously trying to find ways to express the uniqueness of their local identity.
As globalisation has increased, so has the development of sub-classes within societies. For their part, Europeans may enjoy the privileges which have come from integration, not least the economic benefits, but they’re also expressing a need to belong to a cohesive community which has a heritage and a history.
A little while ago, Newsweek magazine called Europe "the emerging world superpower". Some in Europe see this as not only desirable but essential, to balance American hegemony in the world.
There is talk of a European president and foreign minister emerging in the next phase of the EU dream. Certainly, if the Constitution receives a "yes" vote, these development cannot be far away.
On the other hand, even if the Constitution were accepted, there is a public antipathy about powerful bureaucrats in Brussels. This would present a real barrier to further “super-stating” in Brussels. The EU continues to appoint committees to investigate the over-spending of its own members: both individually and in its plethora of committees.
Rumours of luxury living and high expense accounts have been backed up time and again in internal EU reports. It is hard to see people accepting massive growth in the power of the Brussels machine while these practices remain rife, or a perceived to be rife.
It is a mistake to think of culture as merely a product of social, political or economic factors. The very root of the word culture reflects the spiritual aspect of national identity. The "cult" of any group refers to their religious practice, their core, spiritual identity.
It is hard to see Europe becoming more homogenous without a renewal of inner energy, a recognition of a core spiritual identity. In one way or another, spirituality has been a core part of the fuel behind the development of Europe's cultures.
Yes, religion has most certainly contributed more than its fair share of conflicts and heartache. But true spirituality of the kind represented, say, by the teachings of Christ, has nothing to do with taking territory by conquest. In fact, it is characterised by the exact opposite of political ambition -- that is, an attitude of servanthood and cooperation, in place of mastery and competition.
Europe may never again be called "Christian" in the way that it was four or five centuries ago -- and that may not be a bad thing. It would be preferable to see a genuine spiritual renewal which affected individual people, families and relationships than a return to institutionalised religion.
Europe does not need any more institutionalised belief.
But a recognition of its spiritual heritage, the human and faith values on which its cultures have thrived for centuries, could only helped to bring a greater sense of unity in diversity, and a passion of a common destiny.