Sept. 29 issue—The Swedes reject the euro by the resounding margin of 56 percent to 42 percent. Politicians and pundits proclaim the European Union has reached a crisis. Well, yes and no. The Swedish vote was no isolated bout of Nordic crankiness. To the contrary, it was sign of the deep disillusionment sweeping Europe. Yes, Estonia just voted overwhelmingly to join the Union, and Latvia probably will do the same this week. But note how, in a recent referenda, a slew of existing members have either voted down a variety of proposed community reforms or approved them by only slender margins. In Sweden’s case, a broad coalition of female, working-class, poor and rural voters rose to defend the welfare state against what they perceived as collusion between neo-liberal business and government elites in Stockholm and distant and unaccountable technocrats in Brussels.
It's hard to interpret this as anything but a resounding sign of the times. Over the coming year the leaders of at least five countries have promised to submit the landmark new European constitution, currently in the final stages of negotiation, to national votes. Even a single no could consign the whole lofty enterprise to failure. It will be a rough ride, underscoring the EU’s accelerating fragmentation. In Britain last week, Tory euroskeptics watched gleefully as government officials admitted that adopting the euro is “completely off the radar screen” until 2007. In Brussels, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, warned that the EU might split, relegating Sweden (along with fellow Eurozone holdouts Britain, Denmark and some East European members-in-waiting) to a sort of second tier of financially less-influential countries. Acrimonious splits between “old” and “new” Europeans over the Iraq war have undermined any semblance of unified foreign and security policies. And when it comes to common economic policy, budget-busting fiscal “unilateralists”—France, Italy and Germany—have all but killed the EU stability pact.
This is not the end (or even the beginning of the end) for European integration. But it is the end of the cherished Euro-federalist dream (and Euro-skeptic nightmare) of a single European state, centralized in Brussels. To be sure, every member accepts certain core commitments—the single market, the European Parliament and the supremacy of European law in most economic matters. In a plethora of regulatory areas—from anti-monopoly policy to cellular-phone design to food-safety standards—EU rules are the rules. Still, the EU has crossed the Rubicon. Once a relatively small and homogeneous organization, cherishing “ever closer union” above all else, it has become a large and far more diverse, flexible and pragmatic one. “Multispeed” arrangements, whereby countries advance toward integration at their own pace, have become the norm. Eurocrats have even invented a positive term for it: “enhanced cooperation."
Many West Europeans from the old core of the European Community are still ambivalent about the swathe of 10 eastern and southern European countries about to join their club. Their reservations, albeit to a lesser degree, are shared by the new entrants. Yet for all the bumps encountered along the way, enlargement is an admirable achievement. Over the next decade the EU will likely become a zone of enviable peace and democracy from the Arctic Circle to the border of Iraq. The lesson of the Swedish referendum is that the success of the EU cannot be measured by polls. Public opinion may swing back and forth, but the thousands of small decisions taken in common cannot be reversed. The EU remains the most ambitious and the most successful example of peaceful international cooperation in world history.