Wed, Jun 08, 2005 - Page 9 News List

The problem with Europe

With the EU facing a profound crisis, it's time for honesty all around. Politicians have used Europe to their own ends, and its citizens have created false enemies and choices. Without change, the project is doomed

By Will Hutton  /  THE OBSERVER , London

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Last week the world changed. The "No" votes in the French and Dutch referendums on the EU Constitutional Treaty plunged the EU into the most profound crisis since its foundation. They created a political dynamic that will challenge the opening up of western Europe, both internally and to the outside world, that has been the hallmark of economic, foreign and diplomatic policy since 1945.

If mishandled, the crisis may even lead to closure, protection, recession and the disintegration of the euro -- and the balkanization of Europe into mutually suspicious and hostile camps. The end of an era of easy movement from country to country embodied by cheap flights, a single currency and growing interpenetration of each other's economies is now in prospect. Historians may come to say that Europeans never knew they had it so good, but then they threw it away.

The EU, one of the institutional pillars of the postwar world, is visibly corroding before the disaffection of its citizens. In both France and Holland, there was a widespread if false belief -- shared in other member states, including Britain -- that an EU empowered by its new constitution would drive through policies that would destroy national approaches that were held dear.

In France, plagued by at least 10 percent unemployment for more than 20 years, the easily inflammable fear was that "social France," enjoying a generous welfare state, a deep commitment to public services and benign conditions of employment, would be replaced by a minimalist, hard-hearted "Anglo-Saxon" approach to welfare in the name of economic efficiency. This was the reason depressed industrial France voted against the treaty by majorities of more than 80 percent, while Paris, like the rich suburbs of the Hague and Amsterdam, voted "Yes."

Nor was that all. Both countries have suffered backlashes against immigration, with the success of the anti-Islam party led by Pim Fortuyn in Holland, who was murdered for his views, and Jean-Marie Le Pen's far right National Front in France.

Already there are fears that migrant workers from the new member states in Eastern Europe are taking jobs from native French and Dutch with an alleged tidal wave of Polish plumbers in France a case in point. The prospect of an even larger influx of hard-to-integrate Muslim Turks once Turkey joined the EU was another powerful source of disaffection. Add ordinary people's sense of loss of control in an era of globalization and distance from democracy, especially towards institutions as complex and remote as the EU's, and the cocktail of apprehension was complete.

At a stroke the EU has been transmuted from an organization of supranational ambitions to something as weak and -- unless some momentum and coherence can be recovered -- as vacuous as the interwar League of Nations.Already the currency markets are beginning to worry whether the EU's greatest achievement, the euro, is sustainable without a political framework to support it. The Italian welfare minister suggested last week that Italy hold a referendum to leave the euro and bring back the lire.The entire EU edifice, and all the benefits it has brought in terms of trade, stability and peace, is at risk.

The problem is simple.Europe can neither go forward nor stay the same, because the status quo has been rendered illegitimate. French President Jacques Chirac, may insist that he wants the ratification process to continue, supported vainly by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder,but his stance is plainly self-interested and ignores basic political rules. If every other member state says "Yes," then he may be provided with an excuse to run the French referendum campaign for a second time, asking the French to change their mind or risk exiting the EU.

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