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Did the French Do Us a Favor?

[ YES ] A broken Europe will heal stronger

June 05, 2005|Gerard Baker | Gerard Baker is a columnist for the London Times.

President Bush has staked his legacy on the promotion of democracy around the world. In the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the president has placed himself on the side of the people and put tyranny in the cross hairs. But when it comes to the European Union, the Bush vision doesn't seem to apply.

Last week, voters in France and the Netherlands overwhelmingly rejected the proposed EU constitution, a rambling document approved by the union's 25 heads of government. The constitution, lovingly crafted by the continent's political elite over three years, would have confirmed and accelerated the integration that has been shifting power from national governments toward Brussels. One German minister called it the "birth certificate of the United States of Europe."

But the people, inconveniently, intervened. Since 1789, the spectacle of free French rejecting their masters has been an uplifting one for Americans, no less when it is Jacques Chirac than when it was Louis XVI. But the Bush administration is in no position to celebrate this popular victory.

Earlier this year on her charm-rich debut trip to Europe as secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice declared herself an enthusiastic supporter of the constitution. Last week, in Washington she again insisted that the integration was a good thing for the continent and for the United States. To be fair, Rice was merely repeating what U.S. administrations have said for many years.

It might once have been true that U.S. interests were served if it came together with Europe in a voluntary union that would invigorate economies through free markets and promote democratic values. But for years, the EU "project" has been a pale shadow of those lofty ideals.

The Europe rejected by the French and the Dutch last week has become a bureaucrats' fantasy theme park, an unwieldy leviathan steadily extending its reach into areas of European life in ways that would do more harm than good to U.S. global goals.

Internationally, it would create a single foreign policy with a single foreign minister. That would make it harder for countries with strong pro-American traditions, like Britain, Poland and Denmark, to line up with the United States.

At best, it would mean inglorious immobility, a foreign policy in which 25 disparate nations cannot agree on anything. At worst, it would drive Europe toward the Franco-German dream of a counterweight to U.S. power.

Nor would the constitution assist the United States in achieving its real need for a strong Europe created by a more dynamic economy with growing markets for U.S. goods and services. The core European economy, the Euro-zone, is a parched landscape of post-industrial decline. Unemployment in France and Germany, the two largest members, is over 10%; productivity is slumping as companies are entangled in a web of labor and social protections.

What the EU needs is radical economic reform to free up labor markets, dismantle social protections and reduce the size of government.

The constitution would not only fail to provide that reform, it would actually make things worse -- opening up new areas of economic activity to Euro-regulation.

Beyond that, the main reason the constitution would be bad for the United States is that it has been built on the flimsiest of public support.

The European project was once approved by voters because it offered a chance for economic growth and peaceful cooperation. But for the last quarter of a century, it has been driven by a political elite intent on increasing its own Europe-wide power at the expense of national governments. When they have been asked, voters have shown a consistent tendency to reject the whole business. The Danes voted against the euro twice, the Swedes once. Now the French and the Dutch have added their "non" and "nee" to their leaders' ambitions for a constitution.

In the past, Europe's elites simply ignored this growing crisis of public confidence and pressed on regardless. Even as voters were rejecting their leaders' vanity last week, the EU insisted nothing had changed.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg and current president of the EU, said shortly before the French vote: "If it's a yes, we will say, 'on we go.' And if it's a no we will say, 'we continue.' "

It was the kind of remark that perfectly captured the EU's inimitable elitist arrogance. It would have brought a smile to the face of Bertolt Brecht, the great German poet and playwright who lived in East German territory. Brecht once ridiculed the communist attitude toward the people by saying: "The people have forfeited the confidence of the government; it's time the government simply dissolved the people and elected a new one."

The U.S. should stop supporting the modern-day heirs to the objects of Brecht's scorn and put the promotion of a free, open and democratic Europe at the heart of its foreign policy agenda.

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