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French and Dutch Reject EU Constitution (Part B)

Things were supposed to be so different -- this was the way the EU would connect with its citizens. The constitution would be the basic building block of a more powerful and more confident Union for years to come. But now -- in France and in the Netherlands -- the citizens have struck back.

"They took us for granted" said one man in The Hague as he jumped onto his bicycle after casting his vote. "I don't think they'll be doing that again", he added, as he peddled off into the crowd.

"We've already got our own constitution", said a woman further down the road. She stared at the European version which I'd just pulled out of my bag, as if she'd just seen a ghost. "Why on earth would we want that?"

So four years on - and my last European summit as a correspondent based here in Brussels is fast approaching. What's it all been for? Other things have moved on -- even the giant spheres of the Atomium -- looming over the skyline of northern Brussels -- are being clad in a brand new shiny aluminium skin.

But the EU constitution seems to have gone back to square one. This lengthy document, which grew from the seeds planted on that first freezing summit morning in the Atomium's shadow, needs rather more than a quick repair job -- the French and the Dutch have taken a couple of wrecking balls to the European structure, and still no-one is quite sure what will be left standing when the dust finally settles.

Never a week goes by here without someone explaining how they're going to communicate better with the citizens of Europe, and make the EU more accessible. If there was an easy way to do that, it would have been done already. The EU is a complex beast which doesn't lend itself too readily to instant explanations. Many of its citizens simply aren't interested; others are too quick to blame the Union for mishaps created elsewhere.

And that was crystal clear in the two referendum campaigns. People were opposed to the constitution for a wide variety of sometimes contradictory reasons. For every French voter who wanted more Europe with better social protection there was a Dutch voter who wanted less Europe which cost them less money. For every angry no vote cast in protest against an unpopular government today, there was another cast in fear of an uncertain future tomorrow.

So it will take months if not years to fathom the real long-term consequences of the French "non" and the Dutch "nee". The EU will have to rethink some basic principles. But I don't think this is the beginning of the end of the Union. It could now branch out in a rather different direction of course. If the events of the last few days mean the voice of the people really will be heard -- then perhaps this long constitutional process will have brought some clarity, and will have been worthwhile after all.