When French and Dutch citizens went to the polls last week to vote on ratification of the European Constitution, they rendered a deceptively simple verdict: No. But voters were rejecting far more than a convoluted 400-page legal tome that was never adequately explained by local leaders. They also were giving a big thumbs-down to a vision of Greater Europe crafted by the same political elites responsible for the tepid growth and uncompetitive cost structure that risks making many of the Continent's largest nations economically irrelevant.
The defeat also highlights a growing generational split in Europe. In the French referendum, for example, more than 56% of voters over 60 voted "yes" on the Constitution; an equal percentage of voters 25 and younger voted "no." Why? Younger voters are hurt the most by today's high French unemployment -- and worry about their government's ability to pay future retirement benefits. Regaining their support will take a credible, coherent message that stresses growth and ensures a viable future for the young. That won't come from aging pols like French President Jacques Chirac associated with the pan-Europe movement. New voices are needed.
A good candidate to launch this dialogue is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union this summer. Blair, who promoted painful changes to make Britain more competitive, should use this pulpit to marshal support among pro-growth countries like Ireland and new EU members in the East to promote Continent-wide economic reforms. Indeed, cuts in costly employment rules and protectionist regulations are needed if Europe is to be a counterweight to the economic and political might of America and China. With the recent humbling of the French and German architects of the Euro Constitution, Blair's message has a chance of being heard. Let's hope Europe's leaders listen.