Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Gallic Change of Heart?

France has been the great driver and promoter of the European Union, hoping to see the multi-national superstate emerge as a competitor to the hated American colossus. French President Jacques Chirac has labored hard and long to push for a EU constitution that would transform the union from a loose confederacy to a more centralized, federal entity, with Paris guiding EU policy. Unfortunately for Mr. Chirac and the legions of EU bureaucrats in Brussels, many Europeans distrust the idea of the European superstate, and perhaps the idea of the French running it. More galling to Mr. Chirac's dreams are two recent opinion polls in France that suggest that the upcoming vote to accept the new 511 page EU constitution might just produce a resounding "non!"

Yet something structural is going on as well: the rise of a new Euroscepticism. In France, a founder member of the European club, this sentiment has in the past belonged largely to the political fringes: the hard left, or Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right National Front. From a tender age, French voters are taught the virtues of Europe. For political leaders, on left and right alike, Europe has been the means of preserving and projecting French power in a world that was otherwise eroding it. In short, Europe offered comfort: protection from decline; reaffirmation of their social model; the foundation of peace.

This sense of comfort is now falling away. In its place, Europe is increasingly seen as a menace: a destroyer of privileges and a source of new threats. Take the two issues that vex the French most just now, neither related to the constitution, but both overshadowing it: the European Commission's directive to liberalise services, which Mr Chirac ripped apart, just as he had earlier torn up the euro area's stability and growth pact, at this week's EU summit (see article); and Turkey's possible EU membership. The first, introduced by Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch liberal, has become an emblem of French fears about an “ultra-liberal” Europe. There may be genuine concerns about lower wages or safety. But nobody has even tried to explain the merits of the measure, although it was approved by the two French commissioners at the time (one of them, Michel Barnier, is now foreign minister). It has rather become, as one socialist puts it, a symbol of “Europe's drift towards liberalisation”.

Popular discomfort with a federalized EU differs from that expressed by the British. The French dislike the free market, fiscal accountability and transparent government policies being pushed by Scandanavian EU members, which appear to be gathering strength, especially as France and German remained mired in economic malaise. The British, on the other hand, remain traditionally skeptical of Europe as a concept, and wary of ceding British sovereignty to Brussels.


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