This is a Howard Beale moment in Europe. Remember the O'Reillyesque commentator in the 1976 movie "Network," who kept shouting, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore"? It was never clear exactly what he felt was wrong, who was to blame, or what should be done about it. He just wanted to protest against "everything everywhere ... going crazy."
That pretty much sums up European sentiment. People are as mad as hell that their economies are stagnating while crime, immigration and welfare dependency -- the three are intertwined in the average European's mind -- are all on the rise.
The European Union provides a convenient punching bag. In Britain, people hate the EU because it's too socialist; in France because it's too capitalist. In Eastern Europe, they're upset that the EU isn't doing more to facilitate labor mobility; in Western Europe, where the low-wage, if largely mythical, "Polish plumber" is a dreaded figure, they think it's already done too much.
It's almost enough to make a confirmed Euro-skeptic like me feel sorry for the bureaucrats in Brussels. "Why does everyone hate us?" they must be asking over their croissants and lattes. "Haven't we delivered real benefits for the people of Europe?"
To a certain extent they have a point. By helping to lower trade barriers and create a single, stable currency, the EU has spurred economic growth (such as it is). Even more important, by integrating age-old enemies it has helped promote political stability. Its role has been especially important in Eastern Europe, where the prospect of EU membership has hastened democratic and capitalist reforms.
The EU isn't the whole story, of course. The spread of democracy and the security umbrella offered by Uncle Sam have been a big part of Europe's peaceful progress since World War II. But no one can entirely deny the EU's contribution.
So why are the guardians of the new Europe so hated? Words such as arrogance and elitism come to mind. Although the EU has its own parliament, there is a well-founded fear throughout the continent that decisions are being made by unelected mandarins. The populations of the 25 EU member states may not agree on what should be done. What unites them is a desire to determine their own destinies, which is impossible as long as Brussels is calling the shots.
Nothing symbolizes the disconnect between the people and their rulers more than the European Union constitution, a 300-page monstrosity drafted by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and heartily endorsed by current French President Jacques Chirac. This was supposed to be another step toward creation of a European state with its own president and foreign minister. For Gaullists like Giscard and Chirac, it was also part of a cherished ambition to build a great power in competition with les Anglo-Saxons. The skepticism of Poles and Britons to this project was well-known, but ultimately it was undone by the yawning indifference of the French themselves.
The lives of ordinary French people are not dominated by dreams of lost glory; they simply want a decent job and public services that work. It was telling that only professionals and senior executives -- i.e., France's top occupational rung -- voted for the constitution last week. Everyone else opted for "non."
The only way to dispel the current climate of gloom on the continent is to get economies moving again. Margaret Thatcher showed how it can be done: Reduce the size of the state and break the power of the labor unions. But neither Chirac nor his hapless counterpart in Berlin, Gerhard Schroeder, has the guts to do that. Instead, like most European leaders in recent decades, they have thrown their energies into EU integration in the vain hope that this would deliver a shot of Viagra to a moribund continent.
The bankruptcy of that strategy has now been exposed. The question is whether European leaders will face up to their real problems. The fact that Chirac has reacted to the failure of the constitutional referendum by appointing as premier Dominique de Villepin, a haughty intellectual who thinks Napoleon was the ne plus ultra of good governance, is a bad sign.
The good news is that in the wings in France and Germany are conservative leaders Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, respectively, who just might have the gumption to cure their countries' real woes rather than continuing to administer an anti-American analgesic.