With its ten new members, the European Union comprises 25 countries and 453 million citizens. In light of the fact that during the past millennium the EU’s members fought countless wars with each other, and that for forty five years a cold war split the continent into two hostile blocs, today’s Europe is a success of monumental historical significance.
Indeed, the EU represents many things simultaneously. First, it is a guarantee of peace: war is now technically impossible between the Union’s interlinked member countries.
Moreover, the EU is a majestic instrument for international reconciliation. The Germans and the French, who 60 years ago loved each other about as much as Serbs and Bosnians do today, are now a married couple. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland were killing each other for a century, but now that they are in the EU, they have recognized the idiocy of their conflict and the inevitability of reconciliation. Hungarians and Romanians, after nine centuries of hatred and wars, are embarking on the same process. Greece has just decided to support the opening of negotiations for Turkey’s entry into the EU in the next twelve years.
The Union has also been a bearer of prosperity, because it is an effective mechanism for lagging members to surmount long-standing barriers to development. Ireland and Greece, once the two poorest countries of Europe have surged economically, with Greece coming close to the European average and Ireland having already taken its place among the richest.
It is for these reasons that countries outside the EU want to join. In less than two years, this will become a reality for Bulgaria and Romania, while negotiations are beginning with Croatia and Turkey. There is also talk about membership for Serbia and Ukraine. For each of these countries, membership will mean a stable peace with its neighbors and reconciliation at home, as well as accelerated economic growth.
All of this entails a certain amount of instability, particularly if expansion is driven by negotiations among governments, rather than by democratic choices. The project of the new European Constitution was devised to remedy this problem. And, lo and behold, France, which is scheduled to ratify the Constitution by a referendum on May 29, gives the impression of wanting to vote against it. If it does, the result will be an earthquake.
Although every member nation has played its part in integrating Europe, France has without doubt been the country that provided most of the ideas and master builders.
So what is going on? In France, as elsewhere in Europe, there have always existed unbridled nationalists, the “sovereignists” who say no to Europe in the name of defending the nation. But whether they belong to the extreme right or the communist left, they represent barely 20% of the electorate. Over and above that, two factors explain the bizarre phenomenon captured by recent opinion polls in France.
The first is that the French have accounts to settle with their president and the government. Jacques Chirac was re-elected president with 82% of the vote because of the menace from the extreme right. According to all evidence, half of his votes came from the left. But Chirac acted as if his mandate had been unequivocal and put in place one of the most conservative governments France has seen for half a century. “Let’s make the poor pay” is his fiscal order of the day. It smacks of usurpation and is inciting many of the French to vote their anger.
The other factor is that France, like the rest of the world, suffers from an ill-managed form of globalization. As a result, France suffers from growing inequality, high and still-rising unemployment, constant corporate restructurings entailing layoffs, threats to public services and social welfare programs, and a general feeling of insecurity.
The world has undergone massive economic deregulation, prescribed by the monetarist doctrine supported by the conservative forces dominant in the developed countries of North America, Europe, and the Far East. This economic tsunami has come to us from the United States – there is nothing in it for Europe, but the right-wing forces in all our countries, which have coalesced into the majority that governs Europe, have rallied to its support.
It is the desire to reject this state of affairs that, above all else, explains the “No” many French people want to shout. But to do so would be a big mistake. Only Europe as a whole, focused politically on the idea of better regulation, is big enough to block the neo-liberal tsunami. But it needs great doctrinal clarity, a firm political will, and a constitution. Indeed, rejection of the EU Constitution is a sure way to kill European dynamism and weaken Europe’s ability to defend itself.
The debate in France is still raging, and nothing is yet lost. The French people still have time to pull themselves together – and opinion polls suggest that they are beginning to do it. Europe deserves it.