WASHINGTON—European governments are aghast at the decision by Irish voters to reject the Treaty of Lisbon, the new attempt—three years after the collapse of the European Union’s Constitution—to move decisively toward political integration. The only country out of 27 in which ratification was put to a vote has left Eurocrats desperate to find a way to bypass their own rules and move ahead.

There is nothing surprising in this. Ever since Europe made the leap from economic to political integration with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, a substantial number of European citizens have shown contempt for top-down efforts to impose on them supranational institutions. Each time a country’s voters reject a treaty—the Danish in 1992, the French and the Dutch in 2005, the Irish in 2008—a new attempt is made to push for political integration without taking into account the things that people are finding unacceptable.

Part of the reason is the confusion of rationales and passions behind the “no” votes. In some cases, voters seem to be protesting against their own national governments, expressing their malaise in the face of an economic slowdown, or simply giving vent to nationalist instincts. In others, they have more principled reservations coming from the left and from the right. In the case of the Irish “no,” the spectrum of rejection on the Treaty of Lisbon goes from Sinn Fein, the left-wing party that used to be a front for the Irish Republican Army, to center-right groups such as the think tank Libertas, whose chairman, entrepreneur Declan Ganley, played a pivotal role in the referendum. Amid all this confusion, one thing is clear: An extraordinary number of European citizens feel alienated from the Brussels juggernaut even if they enjoy, and benefit from, the freedom of circulation and trade in Europe.

The European Union finds itself re-enacting, more than two centuries later, the polemic between the Federalists who wanted a Constitution for the United States and the Anti-Federalists who opposed what they considered the emergence of a political leviathan. There are, of course, many differences—which is why it is unclear that Europeans will ever be able to reach the kind of compromise that the Americans arrived at.

The ideological opposition to federalism was more clear-cut in 18th-century America than in 21st-century Europe—where political integration is not even called federalism. Although some Anti-Federalist groups were more concerned about losing support from their state governments once a federal entity emerged than about limiting government, on the whole the movement was consistently mindful of individual rights and fearful of bureaucracy. The Anti-Federalists lost, but they forced the Federalists to include a Bill of Rights that severely curtailed the ability of the federal government to intrude. Eventually, part of the Anti-Federalist cause evolved into the Democratic Party of Thomas Jefferson, perpetuating the pressure on the federal government to respect the boundaries (not always successfully or consistently).

The waters are much more muddied in Europe because the European Anti-Federalists, known as “Euroskeptics,” range from protectionists and globalphobics to free-traders and libertarians, and the Federalists, known as “Europhiles,” have been able to co-opt their adversaries once they gained power and became part of the club (with a few exceptions such as Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who holds a ceremonial post). Italy’s Forza Italia, a center-right party that tended to voice concerns about European bureaucracy, is now an ally of Brussels. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative president who once promised reforms, is no less of a Europhile than Spain’s socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero: Sarkozy left his mark on the Lisbon Treaty by downgrading the aspects that safeguard free trade because he believes in protecting “national champions.” The fact that Europe’s mainstream parties on the right and the left—with the exception of Britain’s opposition Conservatives—are all Europhiles means that there is no democratic mechanism for bridging the divide between the people and the Brussels bureaucracy.

In the rivalry between American Federalists and Anti-Federalists, ideas were more important than interests, whereas in the antagonism between Euroskeptics and Europhiles, interests prevail over ideas. This means that every referendum that Brussels loses is followed by new forms of centralization that disregard the citizens’ concerns over the explosion of European bureaucracy. One cannot see a meaningful Bill of Rights emerging in that context.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is the editor of “Lessons from the Poor” and the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.