Monday, 15 December 2003

Constitutionally Incapable – Victory in success

Saturday night, as the summit convened in Brussels to approve a new European Union constitution was unraveling, I sat having supper with a good, old-fashioned British socialist, a charming but unreconstructed wobbly who yearned for the grander days of Wilson, Callahan, and Foot, but who, in addition to his day job, now sadly advises the revisionist, members of Tony Blair’s New Labor cabinet on certain domestic issues.

He was appalled, he said, at Blair’s apparent lack of concern that the document that would turn a trading alliance into a superstate by subordinating the sovereignty of its members was going down to defeat because of what he called the “selfishness” of the Poles, who, along with the Spaniards, had refused to give up voting rights in order to appease the Germans. The problem, he said, was that Prime Minister Leszek Miller and the other Polish politicians who had gone to Brussels were “frightened” of the voters back in Warsaw and Wraclow and were thus the spoilers of what should have been a glorious day for Europe. And Blair, he said, should have called them on it — but he was a coward, too. The British prime minister boasted of winning a few side issues — the EU’s new temporarily NATO-compliant army, for example. But he did little to save the day for the main issue — the constitution. “And now,” said my companion, “we see the result. A disaster.”

Not quite. The EU summit, which was supposed to give common agreement to the draft constitution created by a commission headed by former French president Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing, was perhaps a partial defeat for the thousands of politicians and bureaucrats who had their hopes pinned on its acceptance. But it was a cheering, if perhaps transient, victory for the most Europeans, including the vast majority of Britons, and even the French, for whom the EU has lost its mojo. The Europeans have been exposed to Euro-mania now for decades and have witnessed the bunny-like growth of the super-governmental apparatus in Brussels. Many no longer love what they see.

They perhaps are beginning to realize that the EU wants to do more than facilitate the movement of commerce and labor across national boundaries — goals most Europeans embrace warmly, since they smack of less governmental interference, not more. The forgivable assumption most Europeans made was that in adopting the EU, they would be getting better, more efficient government, not just more government. Now they are finally seeing that the EU also seeks to add yet another layer of bureaucracy to a part of the world that is already heavily taxed and bureaucratically over-upholstered, leaving local government to suffer under layers of sub-regional, regional, national, European, and, if the old Europeans have their way and give more power to the U.N., global governments. On a continent that understands from experience how mutable and tenacious serfdom can become, the new, improved EU suddenly is becoming something less than modern, something that under the French and German governments has become more cynical, self-serving, and grotesque, defining itself since the Iraq war almost entirely apophatically — Europe as the anti-America. It’s not a happy sell: According to the latest EU poll — reported in Britain’s Daily Telegraph — most Europeans now no longer think membership in the EU is necessarily a good thing. Most, in fact, think it’s either a bad idea, or one that doesn’t much matter.

To Chirac and Schroeder, this is only more proof that the EU should have damned the unruly masses and moved ahead even more quickly with the master plan to unite Europe into one empire-sized nation — something that might provide enough buoyancy to float their leaden economies and save their miserable careers. But the problem, my dinner companion argued, wasn’t the vision of a mega-bureaucracy. The problem was the cowardice of politicians who were afraid to make decisions their countrymen might despise. Asking the citizens of these countries what they want is a mistake, he said. “Voters are stupid. They always vote their prejudices.” The European leaders were happiest with no decision at all.

I wondered aloud if maybe getting the consent of the governed before changing who governs them might not be a good idea. That was obviously a dangerous notion. “For something as complex as the EU, it doesn’t make any sense to ask their opinion,” my friend said. Who would expect the common man to understand something as heavy going as the draft constitution? “Besides,” he added, passing a bromide across the table, “that’s why they elected representatives — to make these decisions for them.”

This certainly was very much the sentiment that guided the creation of the constitution on offer in Brussels. As Labor MP Gisela Stuart, Britain’s representative to the constitutional commission, told the Telegraph, “Not once in the 16 months I spent on the convention did representatives question whether deeper integration is what the people of Europe want. The debates focused solely on where we could do more at EU level. Any representative who took issue with the fundamental goal of deeper integration was sidelined.”

Stuart’s comments caused Blair to momentarily stumble in his effort to end-run the electorate and impose the EU by fiat — a partial explanation for his lackadaisical appearance at the summit. Blair, like the others who gathered in Brussels, may have been keenly aware of his constituents’ fading enthusiasm for the EU. But that wasn’t the reason the Polish and Spanish prime ministers deep-sixed the agreement. In both countries, voters are generally pro-European. They simply refused to accept one more bait-and-switch deal by the French and Germans.

The European summit held three years ago in Nice, when the French were taking their turn to preside, produced a treaty that was designed to prepare the EU for a huge expansion that would see the admission of ten new members states, including Poland, the Baltic nations, and others. In a complex formula intended to streamline decision-making in Brussels, Poland, and Spain were each given a weighted vote nearly equal to the weighted votes given to each of the EU’s largest states — the U.K., Italy, France, and Germany.

The Germans weren’t happy with the arrangement at all, pointing out that they have a larger population than the other members and contribute more money to the EU than others. But Chirac insisted. France is one of the few developed nations that uses mendacity as a foreign-policy instrument, so Chirac convinced Schroeder with one of those Gallic winks that resembles a drunkard’s tic. The German winked back and went for the deal, with the assumption it could all be ignored later. Like the EU’s economic stability pact, nurtured into existence by the Germans but violated freely by the French, and like the Kyoto protocols, which the EU knows it won’t meet, the Nice treaty was one of those rhetorical fictions that are by now routine in the Franco-German manipulation of the EU. Chirac apparently felt that a bogus agreement was better than no agreement, so an agreement was made. The Poles, not knowing that the Nice treaty was just pretend, then voted to join the EU based on its provisions.

This new constitution, however, would have thrown out the Nice treaty and reduced the voting and other perks given to the Poles and the Spanish. The French and especially the Germans insisted that the Poles play along. But Miller said no — and rather plainly, too. Within hours of complaining about the US refusal to allow France and Germany to receive U.S. funds in rebuilding Iraq, Schroeder threatened to withdraw the financial supports the EU had promised Poland. Miller left. And the party in Brussels broke up. By Sunday morning, the statesmen of Europe were all back home and in church or someplace else.

Blair’s diffident, aloof role in all of this was easy to explain. Almost all of the serious threats to Blair’s political survival come from his own left, where Europe is generally adored. His electoral victories have all been over his own leftwing; his successes have all come at the expense of their policies and their special interests, and his triumphs at the polls have all been huge. On a wide variety of issues, ranging from the war in Iraq to reforming nationalized health service to proposed fee increases charged to university graduates, Blair is under heavy attack from the old Labor left, for whom the Blairite notion that government is by definition inefficient is anathema and subject to endless criticism in the Guardian and other leftwing media. The Conservatives, meanwhile, haven’t been a serious threat to Labor in years, since it’s impossible to be to the right of a British politician who privatizes the water supply, for pity’s sake. There are only two vulnerable spots on Blair’s right side: Taxes are one. Europe is the other. The British are getting angrier and angrier at having Europe pushed past their stiff upper lips and down their throats.

So Blair could stroll through the summit, make some sorry noises and go home the happier. It’s odd that he can’t see the inconsistency in his push for yet more in-your-face EU stuff. He must know that the giant machine in Brussels that churns more and more bureaucracy, regulations, edicts, protocols and commissions has no reverse gear. It can do only what it has been designed to do: Create more and more government.

Without a change of heart by Britain, Giscard’s constitution will be lightly amended; the Poles will be pressured; voters will be frightened into thinking that if they turn their backs on a EU state, they will be sentenced to penury; and soon, perhaps as early as next March, the constitution will pass and the show will pass to the handful of states who have decided to allow their citizens to actually vote on the matter. Any rejection by any of these nations means another no doubt temporary setback. It’s not much of an opportunity to check the spread of Europhilia, but it’s really all there is.

This all matters to us because most Americans, including those in the current administration, see Europe in benign terms. We envision a strong, collaborative partner who will help us defeat those who threaten us. That’s not how all Europeans see the relationship between the EU and the U.S., however. Nearly 12 years ago in an effort to gather French public support for the Maastricht treaty which gave impetus to the grander aspirations of those who saw Europe as the anti-America, then-French president Francois Mitterand famously said, “We are at war with America. Yes, a permanent war, a vital war, a war without death. Yes, they are very hard, the Americans, they are voracious, they want undivided power over the world.” He meant what he said. The EU superstate, guided by France, now joined by a rabidly anti-American Germany, is a weapon in that war. The only thing that can stop its deployment will be the increasingly cranky people who will have to live in it and pay for it.

Denis Boyles

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