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NIALL FERGUSON

The EU's Waterloo

June 25, 2007|NIALL FERGUSON

RECENTLY IN Belgium, I watched hundreds of Europeans reenact the Battle of Waterloo. It was a surreal experience. Immaculately turned out in Napoleonic uniforms, the reenactors had spent the night before the battle under authentic period canvas, polishing their replica muskets.

Last week, the same country hosted not one but several reenactments of historic battles -- this time by leaders at the summit to establish a new European Union governing treaty.

The Kaczynski twins (who govern Poland) decided that they would reenact World War II. Before the summit began, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski argued that voting shares on the all-important EU Council of Ministers might be adjusted to take account of wartime casualties. Poland, which suffered by far the highest losses in relative terms, has a much smaller population today than it would otherwise have.

The British "twins," Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, were meanwhile arguing for another reenactment: that of the Battle of Maastricht -- the struggle to ratify the 1992 treaty that created the EU. Fearful that certain papers might accuse them of selling their birthrights as free Britons, Blair and Brown sought to extricate themselves from virtually all the summit's proposed changes, in particular the creation of a European foreign minister and a legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Now, I am all in favor of historical reenactments. If people could only agree to skip the real battles and move straight on to the reenactments, all our troubles as a species would be over. Just imagine: Hamas and Fatah meeting annually in Gaza to fire blanks at each other. Sunni and Shiite Iraqis gathering in Baghdad to blow up pedal cars.

Alas, the reenactments going on in Brussels last week were less sensible.

I can understand the Poles opposing the changes to EU governance. Under existing arrangements, the Poles have almost as many votes in the Council of Ministers as the Germans. Under the proposed "reform treaty," which makes population one of the key criteria, they would lose out heavily.

But why were the British twins making such a fuss? The changes were deliberately designed to strengthen the power of the biggest states in the EU. With the second-largest population after Germany, Britain stands to gain.

Admittedly, the new treaty also is designed to extend the authority of the EU, not least in the area of foreign affairs. But the first crucial step in European integration -- handing Brussels responsibility for trade negotiations -- worked out well. The present EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, is a Briton doing such an effective job that new French President Nicolas Sarkozy has attacked him for his dangerously Anglo-Saxon commitment to free trade.

Le petit Nicolas needs watching, like that other diminutive French leader who came unstuck at Waterloo. Far from being some kind of Gallic Thatcher, Sarkozy is at heart an old-style continental protectionist.

According to one report Friday, it was Sarkozy who persuaded the Germans to delete the phrase "where competition is free and undistorted" from the new treaty's description of the EU's internal market. Though he ran on the pseudo-Thatcherite slogan "work more, earn more," it's becoming clear that Sarkozy won on his promise to rescue France from a "national identity crisis."

All over Europe, the politics of identity threaten to trump the economics of individualism. You can see it in the popular support for strict limits on immigration from outside the EU. You can see it in the recent populist attacks on hedge funds in Germany and on private equity in Britain. Above all, you can see it in Sarkozy's success.

The irony is that this nationalist turn is happening at a time when a majority of ordinary Europeans appears to be moving in the opposite direction. According to a Eurobarometer survey, EU membership is now regarded as "a good thing" by slightly more than half of European voters (57%), its highest level since 1994. Fully two-thirds of voters favor the idea of a proper EU constitution. Slightly fewer -- 62% -- support the idea of unitary EU foreign and defense policies. A startling 56% expect the EU to have its own army in the future. And 51% expect the EU to have a directly elected president.

The problem is not with the majorities but with those noisy minorities who regard EU membership as having been bad for their countries. These amount to roughly 30% of the electorate in Britain and 21% in France.

I am not quite sure what battle it is that these people are reenacting. Perhaps, come to think of it, they are reenacting Waterloo.

nferguson@latimescolumnists.com

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