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What’s Left of the Union?

Today the churches are no longer strong enough to bear the weight of this arrangement. At the same time a large immigration—mainly from Tur-key, Morocco, and the former Dutch colony of Suriname, among other countries—changed the complexion of the society, but the immigrants were never asked to assimilate to what is actually an old and unique society that in its own way can be highly intolerant.3

That the Netherlands arrangement has broken down was the conclusion drawn by the Dutch from the murders of the radical politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and last year of Theo van Gogh, maker of a film hostile to Muslim treatment of women. These were great shocks to a traditionally stable and liberal society, but again had nothing to do with the EU.

In both the Netherlands and France much opposition to the constitution was misinterpreted: the actual effect of the vote is not the one primarily intended. A great many French voted against Jacques Chirac and his government for being unable to solve the problems of high unemployment and low growth; but few of those voting in France or the Netherlands considered themselves voting against European unity as it now exists. They were voting against a different Europe, one that the constitution might have created.

In the Netherlands, people were not only voting against more immigration, they were also voting in protest against the loss they suffered from official undervaluation of the guilder when the Netherlands joined the euro. They were objecting to the indifference of EU officials and the larger countries to the Netherlands’ proposals concerning the constitution. They were voting for such irresistibly persuasive intangibles as “remaining Dutch.” They implicitly were voting against admitting Turkey and Ukraine to the EU, and against the original EU members’ loss of influence to new members. They voted against having Russia on Europe’s frontiers, as is now the case, and Europe’s on Iraq’s, as would be the case were Turkey admitted. But they were not renouncing the EU.

The French voted against the abstraction called “liberalism,” understood in Europe as globalizing American market capitalism set on destroying the European model of social welfare and government. They voted against the threat of Polish plumbers rushing to fix French sinks at prices ruinous to French plumbers, supposedly implied in Dutch former European commissioner Frits Bolkestein’s proposition for liberalizing competition in services across the EU. (Press inquiries in Poland subsequently produced little evidence of plumbers anxious to move to France.) They also voted against the threat that the constitution would allow NATO to control European defense.

But aside from larger European issues, the French were voting against the stagnation and sterility of French politics. Jacques Chirac launched his career as a presidential candidate twenty-nine years ago, against then President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the man who drafted the European Constitution. Giscard first became a major political figure while Charles de Gaulle was still France’s president. The French would like change. They want someone to break their political stalemate, in which the same familiar faces shift from one position to another. President Chirac recently appointed Dominique de Villepin as prime minister, at least a relatively fresh face in French domestic politics, but that is not likely to be enough.

In France one can observe a very sophisticated level of political debate and passion but it does not always provide a model of political lucidity. The public demands reforms, and when it gets them often goes into the streets to block their application, as in a recent case of educational reforms. The French are a notoriously contentious people—rationalized as a heritage of revolutionary tradition—which is an important factor in both the demand for reform and the reluctance to have it applied.

In 1991 the French public, urged to do so by President François Mitterrand, approved the Maastricht Treaty confirming the expansion of the EU to twelve nations and proposing steps toward a common currency. Comparison of the May 29 exit polls in France with those of the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty shows no strengthening of extremist parties. Nor do the polls show new class, ideological, or regional divisions, or a rural–urban divide, or even one between the employed and unemployed. Retired people mostly voted yes both times, as did the professional and upper middle classes.

The decisive difference was a big shift in the vote of the “intermediate” trades and professions that make up the lower middle class. These include schoolteachers, nurses and hospital technicians, accountants, department heads in shops, and salesmen, among many others. The “no” vote of this group increased by seventeen points between the Maastricht referendum and 2005, producing a 53 percent majority.

In 1992 this group was the great beneficiary of the prosperity of France’s so-called glorious thirty postwar years. Its members were making more money than ever before, buying new houses in better suburbs, and had high expectations about their own future and particularly that of their children. That optimism now has disappeared, and people fear falling back. They have lost buying power and are afraid for their children. They are working harder (the thirty-five-hour work-week notwithstanding) but losing ground. These above all are the people who see “France in decline,” while their own situation seems ignored by management and unions alike; they are overlooked by the press, and treated with indifference by governing elites in Paris and Brussels.4

Undoubtedly there is an element of nihilism in French voter conduct today, provoked by political frustration, but again this has little or nothing directly to do with the EU. An economist and historian, Nicolas Baverez, wrote in Le Monde on June 4 that the constitutional referendum simply provided “the death certificate” for “Gaullist France, corrupted by François Mitterrand, and ruined by Jacques Chirac.” This is a convincing verdict.

Yet there are solutions. Sweden, Denmark, and other countries such as Switzerland manage to combine high standards for their social policies with low unemployment. Some of the solutions to France’s problems are readily apparent, such as the necessity to remove fiscal and administrative barriers to firing and hiring, and to the creation of new enterprises. But these require the political leaders to tell voters things they don’t want to hear (as Gerhard Schröder has begun to do in Germany).

Baverez also speaks of the problem of Europe’s “organized deflation, which has transformed ‘euroland’ into a desert of unemployment and innovation,” the result of Germany’s original insistence that the European Central Bank be given as its sole task the prevention of inflation. This automatically canceled the possibility of Keynesian policies (even the perverted Keynesianism of Bush administration deficit finance, which gives George Bush’s and Alan Greenspan’s America its much-envied growth and high employment). As Robert A. Levine, former deputy director of the Congressional Budget Office, wrote recently, “The rigid monetary and fiscal constraints imposed by Maastricht are at least as responsible for economic malaise as structural sclerosis is.”5 French voters remember that France’s postwar growth, from the early 1950s to the oil shocks of the early 1970s, took place under a dirigist government’s successful industrial policy, by which the government both supported and protected industries that showed a strong capacity for growth. At that time monetarism was but a cloud on the policy horizon, not the fading orthodoxy it is now.


The European Union is an amazing accomplishment. The original and early members have made a fifty-year effort to bring about Europe’s reconciliation; they did so with generosity, and willingness to pool sovereignty and spend money on one another and on the later members who joined the union. They aimed to create and sustain international peace, and economic and social development. The EU has transformed formerly poor countries in Europe—Greece, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal—and now is repeating this effort to benefit its new Central European, East European, Baltic, and Mediterranean members. It is a great success.

Rejection of the constitution does not damage the existing union. Relevant reforms—such as having a single president and reinforcing diplomatic and security powers—can be recovered from the wreckage. It is entirely possible for the EU countries to work cooperatively within a moderately altered version of the present EU structure of the twenty-five (or twenty-seven).

Former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine wrote in Le Monde on June 9:

Europe is geographic as much as political. It has to have limits…. We should return to the Europe of great projects: infrastructure, educational, scientific, industrial, social, cultural, ecological, diplomatic projects. Projects that are precise, with timetables. Offered this, no one will be tempted to vote ‘no.’ Existing treaties permit it. Give the eurozone a true economic policy. The challenge of the future is to reconcile growth, employment, and ecology. Let the European continent accomplish this synthesis.

What is certainly feasible is a political arrangement in which there are several different levels of integration and nations selectively cooperate with one another when it makes sense to do so. This sometimes is described as discrimination, relegating some members to lower status, a conclusion that does not automatically follow. Such a Europe of diverse competences and ambitions is probably the only practical solution.

The European monetary zone, for example, in which the euro is the only currency, includes only twelve out of twenty-five EU members. The Schengen agreement eliminating immigration and travel barriers involves only fifteen EU countries, but includes non-EU Norway and now Switzer-land. EU peacekeeping initiatives have been carried out in Macedonia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the Congo.

In each case, the distinctions between those who take part and those who don’t are pragmatic rather than invidious. The European monetary zone, the European security organization, and European diplomacy all have different patterns of cooperation among EU members. Neutral states, non-EU NATO members, and non-NATO EU states accept different commitments and different ways of working together.

Within the existing EU a group of nations practicing “reinforced cooperation” in defense and foreign policy has been emerging, the result of an Anglo-French initiative at Saint-Malo in December 1998, strongly seconded by Germany and Belgium. The EU is preparing 7,500-man crisis groups for peacekeeping and a 60,000-man rapid reaction force that leaves out the EU’s neutral members, Austria and Ireland. The intention is to establish a serious European political and security presence in world affairs, a role that most of the group’s members, former great powers, had in the past.

Such is the Europe France wants. It is opposed and much derided in Washington and at NATO headquarters. Nicholas Burns, the US undersecretary of state and a former ambassador to NATO, bluntly told a NATO conference in Sweden on May 25, “Let’s get it straight. NATO does the big military operations” (or to be more accurate, US-led coalitions drawn from NATO and elsewhere are expected to do them). The EU, he continued, handles peacekeeping operations. “If not,” he said, “there will be friction, and you [meaning the Europeans] are not going to be happy.”

However, the commitment to making Europe a diplomatic and strategic force in the world was embodied in the constitution and undoubtedly will survive its demise, since it, too, is an affirmation of national or communitarian independence and strength. For this reason it may be doubted that it can be denied in the long run.

The official American position, reiterated several times during and after the French and Dutch votes, is that the United States wants “a strong and united Europe.” The dramatic French vote initially produced glee in some neoconservative circles, but the administration now wants good relations even with the “old” Europeans, and has its own priorities for the EU. It seeks European help in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also in dealing with Iran and in supporting whatever Washington eventually does with respect to a Palestine state.

The mainstream American foreign policy establishment has long wanted the European Union to have a close relationship with Washington, and some Americans expect it to eventually become the political counterpart to NATO in America’s transatlantic relations. This clearly implies American leadership, and is part of a larger conception of world “democratic” alliance. What Washington does not want is a Europe that aims to be a counterweight to US power or a power center in a multipolar geopolitical structure. Such could be “the road to war,” Condoleezza Rice once warned.

Hence a European crisis that temporarily weakens the French position in Europe and strengthens Tony Blair is welcome in Washington, while a Europe that will not be open to Turkey or to new members from the post-Soviet states is unwelcome. What is unacceptable to the US administration is a Europe with political and strategic ambitions of its own. Nonetheless, that seems likely to be the Europe that will survive the doomed adventure of the constitution.

—June 15, 2005

  1. 3

    The same mistake has been made elsewhere, where, for high-minded reasons, assimilation or cultural accommodation was not demanded of immigrants, thereby ghettoizing them, without meaning to do so. The largest components of Netherlands immigration have been Moroccan, Turkish, Somalian—all Muslim societies—and people from the former Dutch colony of Suriname, where Dutch is the official language and the population a heterogeneous one of Creoles, Indians, Javanese, blacks (“Bush Negroes”), and Amerindians. The assimilation—or nonassimilation—problem chiefly concerns the Muslim groups.

  2. 4

    Inquiry carried out for Le Figaro by Ipsos; see analysis by Vianney Aubert, Le Figaro, June 6, 2005.

  3. 5

    [A eurozone return to prosperity] will require structural change; structural change will require voter approval; voter approval will require prosperity. The circle can be broken only by returning to the pragmatic use of monetary and budgetary stimulus as a necessary if ‘irresponsible’ first step to growth.” Op-Ed article in The International Herald Tribune, June 8, 2005.

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