Thursday, April 14, 2005

Faustian Bargain

Let's start from the source least likely to run the headline: the Guardian reviews newspaper reports which suggest that French voters may reject the proffered European Constitution, scheduled for ratification on May 29.

The French are becoming increasingly disenchanted with Europe and are ready to turn their backs on the EU, according to the latest opinion polls in the French newspapers Le Figaro and Le Parisien. Their polls, published yesterday and last Thursday respectively, show that more than half of French voters say they will vote no to the European constitution when the country goes to the polls on May 29.

Then let's go to the 'why' part of the disenchantment.

Why are the French "feeling sick of Europe", asked Eric le Boucher in Le Monde. "They regret the enlargement of the EU. They detest the idea that their public services are open to foreign competition. They complain about the liberal slant of the union." And they are peeved that the prosperity enjoyed by Britain, Scandinavia and eastern Europe has not been seen at home, he said. In France, the benefits of the EU are unclear, Le Boucher noted - "economic growth has stalled, unemployment is rising inexorably" - and pessimism reigns.

Historians in the far future will struggle to understand the convoluted inner logic of the Le Monde observation. "They regret the enlargement of the EU" which is that which they wanted. "They detest the idea that their public services are open to foreign competition" and yet they detest the benefits of the policy they most ardently oppose: "and they are peeved that the prosperity enjoyed by Britain, Scandinavia and eastern Europe has not been seen at home". But let us take it as datum and plainly say that the French are disgusted with the consequences of their own desires.

The Astute Blogger asks whether the French are, by a funny twist of fate, set to destroy their own creation: that having created their own Frankenstein monster, they are now in danger of being strangled by it. (hat tip: DA). The burden of trying to pursue two contradictory goals may prove too much. On the one hand, the French are committed to preserving the welfare state while on the other hand were creating the very conditions that undermine it. According to the International Herald Tribune:

At a meeting in Brussels, EU leaders took a strong turn toward entrenching Europe's high-tax social model by backing away from a radical deregulation of the Continent's services sector. They wanted to assuage fears among voters in France and Germany that cheaper workers from the free-market economies of Eastern Europe would steal their jobs. ...

It will mean a significant rewriting of the European Commission's services directive that was meant to allow businesses that provide services - from consultants to accountants to builders - to compete freely in all countries across the union. . The services directive had been blamed for the dramatic drop in French public support for the new constitutional treaty after two opinion polls showed a majority of French voters could reject it in May's referendum.

The price of forging ahead with a European Union in which France was allowed to play by special rules amounted to creating a "separate but equal" regime on the grounds that Europe 'needed France' in order to remain Europe, a regime in which some are more European than others.

 Jean-Claude Juncker, current EU president, denied that Europe was splitting in two between the new free-market Eastern economies that joined the EU last year and an old Europe that wants to defend the west's high-tax social model. ... In rewriting the services proposals, France sought guarantees against social dumping by harmonizing social laws. Chirac also demanded special protection for public services such as health care and for cultural industries such as television. ... "This is about protecting uncompetitive workers in France, Germany and Belgium," said Ann Mettler of the Lisbon Council, a free market think tank in Brussels. She pointed out that EU unemployment stood at 90 million and that youth unemployment was at 18 percent. "That is not inclusive. It is not social." .

The alarm is genuine though the surprise should not be. The European project was in part originally conceived as an amplifier for French ambitions and the pretty flame of the fuse has lost its charm as it nears the primer. People are beginning to understand the document before them but the political salesmen are determined to offer any combination of rebates, coupons, special offers and financing to get the final signature on the contract of sale. Stephen Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster" speaks of the belated remorse that so often follows Faustian bargains, though like as not there will be no reprieve from the consequences of this deal.

It was about the last straw for Jabez Stone. "I vow," he said, and he looked around him kind of desperate -- "I vow it's enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the devil. And I would, too, for two centsl" ... But till you make a bargain like that, you've got no idea of how fast ... years can run. For every day, when he gets up, he thinks, "There's one more night gone," and every night when he lies down ... it makes him sick at heart.

But with France and the Netherlands close to rejecting the European Constitution, in spite of the blandishments, the referendum on May 29 is of critical importance because there really isn't a Plan B in case the European project is derailed. According to Financial Times, there are only plans to limit the scope of the catastrophe.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the veteran prime minister of Luxembourg and holder of the rotating EU presidency, is said by officials to be on standby to co-ordinate the EU's response if France or the Netherlands votes No. One senior EU official said: “We may want to issue a political statement quickly to try to limit the damage. Then we would try to pick up the pieces at the EU summit on June 16-17.” He said there were no formal contingency plans in place, and there were still hopes that both France and the Netherlands would endorse the treaty.

Which leaves the field open to the first European leader able to articulate a viable and alternative trajectory for the nations of the old continent.