TODAY the electorate of France votes in its national referendum on the proposed EU constitution; it will be followed by voters in the Netherlands giving their verdict on Wednesday. The stakes could not be higher for the European Union, its ruling elite and the citizens of its member states, including Britain, whose own referendum on the constitution is now being subjected to a cynical game of political brinkmanship.
Despite the consistency of poll findings showing the No vote ahead in both France and Holland, the large proportion of undecided voters makes it hazardous - as well as presumptuous - to forecast the result. However, that has not inhibited the frustrated and outraged of Brussels from making plans, in anticipation of defeat, to move the goalposts. Their pessimism is probably justified: their blatant contempt for their own electorates and the democratic process most emphatically is not.
Disillusionment with the European project is spreading across the continent with good reason. Like weeds, interventionist, statist policies have, over the past three decades, taken firm root in the once-powerhouse economies of the European Union. The consequences - from high unemployment to weak economic growth - are now all too evident in the largest countries such as France and Germany and are the cause of the increasingly rejectionist stance being taken by their electorates.
The key issue of interventionism versus free market is central to today's vote in France. That country's voters, whipped up by trades unions and hard-left politicians whose mentality corresponds to British militancy in the era of the Winter of Discontent, have reached the irrational conclusion that the proposed constitution is an 'Anglo-Saxon', Thatcherite attack on their cherished leisure hours, holidays, work practices and dirigisme. In fact, the document was designed for the reverse purpose - to protect this culture of non-competitive inertia and extend it to Britain.
We are witnessing the spectacle of one of the most educated electorates in the developed world voting by superstition: it is as if the Labour Party had abolished Clause Four on the grounds it was not sufficiently socialist. This is the climax to the process of welfare creep that has progressively eviscerated the formerly strong economies of the core EU member states. They began with a social market economy that was meant to combine the best of US wealth-creating capitalism with the healthcare and welfare safety nets of the post-war European Christian Democrat model. Europeans would not become so rich, so fast, as Americans; but they would enjoy greater security.
Then the rot set in. Between 1985 and 1994, annual US economic growth was 0.7% higher than in the Eurozone; between 1995 and 2004 the gap widened to 1.2%. In that latter period, growth of output per worker in America rose to 2.1% per annum; in the Eurozone, it slumped from 1.9% to 1%. In 1960, when the European Economic Community (EEC) was just three years old, US employment stood at 36% of the population; today it has risen to slightly under 48%. In Europe, the figure has stagnated at 43%, but even that is a false prospectus since much of it is due to expansion in public sector employment.
Beyond that, the tax burden in the United States is the same as 30 years ago, at 25% of national income. In Europe over the same three decades the burden has risen from 33% to above 40%, the heaviest rates being in the core economies of France, Germany and Italy. And Europe's so-called centre-right parties have bought into the statist consensus: even the British Tories displayed a timidity over tax cuts in the recent election that suggests the contagion is spreading.
The European Union, for all its strutting geopolitical pretensions at the time of the Iraq war and similar crises, is actually in decline, driven by the gravitational pull of its failing economic model. Forty-eight years after the Treaty of Rome, the EU is now a project unnecessarily risking meltdown. How did we get from there to here?
The EEC was supposed to be the reverse of the protectionist ethos that now prevails in Europe. Yet, from the first, it was intended to have a political dimension. That aim was institutionalised from 1967, with the creation of the single Commission, Council of Ministers and European parliament. The Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 was a crossing of the Rubicon, seriously eroding national sovereignty, most notably in 'justice and home affairs' issues.
We have now reached the stage where Britain, still a net contributor to the EU budget, has its parliament bypassed by some 25,000 European regulations a year. Our economy is spectacularly outperforming the Eurozone, so it would be folly to allow our wealth-creators to be hobbled by oppressive regulations. Since when did insolvents have the right to impose their failed prescriptions on flourishing entrepreneurs? Now a constitution has been drafted, as the charter for a European superstate. You do not have to be a UKIP refusenik to recognise that these tensions are becoming intolerable. It has become clear that euroscepticism is no longer the sole preserve of the right.
Regardless of whether today's vote turns out to be Yes or No, the whole European project needs to be revisited, with radical intent. It is imperative that a referendum be held in Britain too. The public in this country must have the right to express its will, as other EU citizens are doing. Only by this means can the British government negotiate with its EU partners coherently and with an irrefutable mandate.
Already, and unwisely, the EU is preparing to sideline any democratic vote that does not conform to its project. It is time to confront it with the demands of democracy.
The Prime Minister must not be allowed to shelve, for his political convenience, the crucial consultation he has promised the public - the first vote on Europe in this country for 30 years. Let the voters speak.