PHILADELPHIA - The European Union is a wondrous construct. In five decades, it has made allies out of historic enemies and brought unprecedented prosperity to Europe. But it was created as an economic union, and its high point was the creation of a single currency, the euro.
The idea that Europeans could create one super state, a United States of Europe, was a vast overreach. The EU has kept adding members, now 25, that include ex-communist states where people are willing to work for less than Western Europeans.
In the wings is Turkey (population 70 million, mostly Muslim), which is about to start the process of accession. The French non and the Dutch nee were a belch from citizens suffering from EU indigestion. They are no longer certain where Europe is headed, or what it means to be "European." It's simplistic to pass this off as a protest by anti-Muslim racists, or lazy Frenchmen who fear a closer union would force on them a U.S.-style capitalist model.
These voters were expressing an angst that should make politicians pay attention on this side of the Atlantic. This is an era of dizzying global change, when the very nature of work and society is being reinvented. Europeans are looking for solid ground.
According to Europe expert Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, last week's vote was less about the constitution's contents and more about "the distinct renationalization of political life in Europe. There is a sense of dislocation" in Europe, he says, "that threatens national identities." Politicians ignore such anxieties at their peril. They are the stuff that breeds populist backlash and radical movements, left and right.
So what did European politicians do? They proposed to "streamline" the EU's decision-making powers - meaning key decisions on issues such as immigration or law enforcement could be made without agreement of all members. The politicians claimed this was needed because the number of EU members was expanding.
But the Dutch feared they might lose their liberal policies on drugs, gay marriage and euthanasia. The French feared they might lose their welfare state. Whether these policies are correct, citizens should have the right to choose the leaders who make them. Instead, they felt their identity being subsumed by a Brussels bureaucracy.
No wonder only one country, Spain, has approved the new constitution by referendum. For the sake of Europe's future, its leaders need to take a reality check. The dream of promoting political union was propelled by a desire to cement a united Germany into Europe in such a way that Europe's past horrors could never return. But younger Europeans no longer fear the Germans. And Europe can't become a political clone of the United States.
As Jean David Levitte, French ambassador to the United States, recently noted: "We come with very different backgrounds, 2,000 years of different histories made of wars more than periods of peace." He thought it would take "one or two more generations" to produce one European foreign policy.
The new constitution calls for a common European foreign minister. But Germany is seeking its own permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, in addition to permanent seats held by France and Britain. None of the three is willing to give up its seat in favor of one common EU representative.
Until they are, might it not make sense for EU members to reconsider the pace of political integration? Europe, as Mr. Levitte also noted, is in its longest period of peace since the Roman Empire. Why not give citizens more time to digest recent changes and figure out where they want Europe to go?
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.