The dramatic Dutch rejection of the European Union constitution (search), following France's "no," could shift the EU onto a much less ambitious course, diminishing the chances the U.S. will face a rival European superpower anytime soon.
The charter was meant to bestow some of the trappings of statehood — a flag, a president, an anthem — on the alliance and lay the foundation for a political entity of 450 million people accounting for a quarter of the world's economic output, bigger and richer than the United States.
But the document must be ratified by all 25 member states, and voters in France and the Netherlands — both founding members of the EU — have clearly not bought into the grand vision of Europe championed by their political elite.
European leaders will discuss what to do next at a summit in about two weeks. The task is not simply to find a legal way out of the constitutional impasse but to rethink the direction of Europe, including plans for adding new members and deepening political integration.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (search) said the result of the French and Dutch votes "raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe."
The character of the constitutional debate differed somewhat in France and the Netherlands.
In France, anger with President Jacques Chirac (search) and fears of an "Anglo-Saxon" Europe under the spell of free-market principles clearly influenced the outcome. Leading French supporters of the charter complained that many voters were more interested in sending a message to Chirac than making a reasoned judgment on the constitution.
But the Netherlands already follows the pro-U.S., free-market policies that alarm the French. Instead, Dutch liberals feared the country would will lose its independence over such socially liberal policies as euthanasia and marijuana. Conservatives fretted about immigration policies being decided at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
The common thread appears to be public rejection of the notion — at least for now — of a European superstate. That is a goal never explicitly articulated by national leaders who support the charter and even denied by some, yet it is implicit in the structures the constitution would establish.
To many of the constitution's champions, a united Europe would serve as a major pillar of a multipolar world, capable of standing up to the U.S. and competing economically with the Americans and the rising Asian economic powerhouses China and India.
That goal now seems at best more distant.
"The constitution, in this version, is history," Czech President Vaclav Klaus, a critic of the charter, said after the French vote. "My fears that the European constitution, with the ambitions it had, would not contribute to the unification of Europe, but will damage the process of European integration, were fulfilled."
After the French rejected the charter Sunday, European leaders were quick to declare that ratification should continue in other EU nations.
However, there are strong opposition blocs in several of the undecided countries, most notably Britain. If Chirac was unable to sell the constitution in France despite the support of most major media and political parties, many wonder how British Prime Minister Tony Blair can do it in the most "Euroskeptic" of the big EU members.
In theory, electorates in countries that reject the constitution could be asked to vote again — as happened when the Irish turned down an EU treaty in 2001, only to approve it in a second vote the following year.
That wouldn't be easy in France without major changes to the document, which German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder already has ruled out. Chirac's government is so unpopular it would take a miracle to sell a charter already rejected by voters from across the political spectrum.
EU leaders will review their options at their summer summit in Brussels on June 16-17. Rather than a firm decision, what seems likely is pulling back for a "period of reflection," as called for by Blair.
Among other options, the EU could postpone the November 2006 deadline for members to ratify the charter, buying politicians time either to try to promote the charter or decide what to do next.