It is time to shelve ideological polemics and view Europe as it really is. Distraught Europhiles and emboldened Eurosceptics miss the true meaning of the constitutional crisis triggered by the French and Dutch referendums. Far from demonstrating that the European Union is in decline or disarray, or in desperate need of democratic reform, the crisis demonstrates its fundamental stability and legitimacy.

In recent years, a European constitutional settlement has quietly emerged. The last decade of integration, with the single market, single currency and enlargement, was the Union's most successful. The mistake was to upset this pragmatic arrangement with an idealistic scheme for greater democratic deliberation and high-profile constitutional revision, which was then oversold to the European public. In rejecting the resulting document, reasonable though it is, French and Dutch voters may be wiser than they know.

The stability of the existing European constitutional settlement is demonstrated, above all, by the conservatism of the constitutional treaty itself; it consolidates rather than radically reforms the EU, and would not have fundamentally changed the de facto constitution embodied in the Treaty of Rome. Present arrangements are stable not because voters block reform but because there is no overriding substantive goal - akin to the single market or single currency - powerful enough to inspire change. European social policy exists only in the dreams of disgruntled socialists. A military build-up American-style exceeds Europe's means and insults its ideals. Policies on taxes, health, pensions, education, culture, infrastructure and even defence and immigration seem destined to remain national. When polled, most Europeans favour the EU largely as it is. It is small wonder that the year-long convention on the constitution took only two days to reject proposals for new community competences. Fundamental institutional reform received similarly cursory consideration.

Some believe the EU can no longer function unless it is brought closer to the people. Yet the constitutional crisis demonstrates precisely the opposite. The convention, the constitution and the invocation of European ideals were tactics explicitly designed to increase public legitimacy. Enthused by the prospect of re-enacting Philadelphia, Europeans were supposed to educate themselves, swell with idealism, back sensible reform and participate more actively in EU politics.

In retrospect, this grand democratic experiment seems naive. Abstract constitutional debates and referendum campaigns gave anti-globalisation, anti-immigrant and anti-establishment discontents of every stripe a perfect forum. EU policies already ratified by national parliaments, such as the recent enlargement, drew fire. Add the suspicion of voters unsure why a new constitution is required at all, and the enterprise was doomed.

Enthusiasts for deliberative democracy fail to appreciate that institutional reform can never generate an engaged public, because the average citizen responds only to highly salient ideals and issues. European ideals remain weak, while the bread-and-butter issues citizens care about most remain largely national. Forcing democratic debate about an institution that handles telecommunications standardisation, the composition of the Bosnia stabilisation force or the privatisation of electricity production produces the lowest common denominator of modern European politics: dissatisfaction with political elites, anger against foreigners and the symbolic dichotomy between Eurofederalists and Eurosceptics. The current system of member state approval in the Council - European parliamentary approval and national implementation - is more appropriate.

For European politicians, the lessons are clear. First, a collective mea culpa is needed. Democratic politics requires that leaders acknowledge the people's will and concede that they erred. Next, there should be a return to the politics of quiet incremental reform that has made the EU the world's great political success story of the last 50 years. Europeans support continued piecemeal reform of foreign and internal security policies. Turkish membership is now dead, lest the democratic debacle recur, but a half-way arrangement acceptable to European and Turkish publics remains (just) within grasp. Remaining tolerance for enlargement is better directed to the Balkans. And economic reform merits national attention.

All this is best justified by invoking the national interest of individual member states, not lofty constitutional rhetoric. The unique genius of the EU is precisely that it encourages policy co-ordination while respecting the powerful rhetoric and symbolism that still attaches to national identity. Left behind will be the European federalisers and democratisers for whom "ever close union" has become an end in itself. Disowning this well-meaning, even admirable, band of idealists may seem harsh, but it is just. For in democratic politics, those responsible for a policy pay the price when it fails.

The writer is professor of politics at Princeton University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

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