“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, June 02, 2005

LI was planning on springing a grand sounding post on our readers entitled the Crisis of the Liberal Order – sweet, eh? Alas, our schedule is a bit too crowded today for the erecting of such monuments (or tombstones). We’ve been rather surprised by the commentary that followed the French no. The crowd at Crooked Timber became apoplectic about the whole thing. Ourselves, we think that the comment made by John Rentoul in the Independent is on the mark:

“French voters have given all sorts of reasons for voting No, many of them contradictory, but there can be little doubt that in the longer perspective of history, it will be seen as a vote that said: 'So far and no farther.' I would not characterise the mood of European peoples as being satisfied with the state of the Union, but the French referendum suggests that the balance between the powers of the nation state and the centre is regarded as being about right. The expansion from 15 to 25 members last year was a huge change not just in the size but in the nature of the Union, which many in France did not like because it diminished their influence. They did not want to take the risk that the constitution would set the seal on that diminution.”

On the other hand, like most English and American commentators, Rentoul follows this with the usual fallacious economic analysis:

“For some time, the argument has been moving in Britain's favour towards labour market flexibility and against counterproductive social protection. Franco-German attempts to 'protect' people's welfare by loading costs on employers and by protection against imports has resulted in high unemployment at home and poverty abroad.”

This is, firstly, an analysis with which LI vigorously disagrees. The French and German malaise is only partly due to rigid labour markets – it is mostly a typical Keynesian crisis, too much savings, not enough demand. To jigger with the labour markets (and even LI can concede that some tradeoffs may be necessary) before doing something about the tendency of the French and Germans to save instead of consume (because – of course – they are afraid of what happens when labour market flexibility means sinking wages and more unemployment – as they should be) is typical Thatcherite nuttiness.

In any case, the effort to achieve a scale that will preserve the will of the people, however attenuated the echo, within governable unity, is viewed, by some soi disant lefty-libs, as a sin as mortal as smoking at the non-smoking table. Serge July, in his editorial in Liberation (the message of which was so mangled by Jefferson Morley in the Washington Post roundup of media reaction to the Non that it provides prima facie evidence for our suspicion that American papers are only correct about a third of the time when it comes to reporting events that happen in non-English) reacted like a typical Euro-zombie:

“Referendum on the enlargement. Between the specter of Turkey which unambiguously points to the Moslems and the unfortunate Polish plumber, foreigners have been invited to stay home. Le Pen xenophobe, you can bank on that, but letting the leaders of the left make a campaign on this terrain, as Chirac in 2002 did on crime, one believed that xenophobia unthinkable…”

The collapse of distinctions, here, is the basis of the somnambulism. The enlargement was not a triumph of cosmopolitanism, but a disaster created by a very old politics – the politics of the Cold war. Poland and Central Europe were engulfed en masse even though their economies are not a natural fit for the older economies of Europe – far from it. Just as France began the European project by making the move to ally with (and limit) its old enemy, Germany, thus cementing sixty years of unparalleled prosperity and peace, so, too, the natural thing for Poland and Hungary to do would be to ally with Russia. The very thought gives the Americans the willies. Hence, the pressure to do what the EU did – in the process, screwing the populations of Germany and France. Turkey, we think, should certainly be a target of massive EU aid – as Greece was in the sixties. But the EU shouldn’t be a monster clone. Blind to this, the political class has decided that protests against it should be met with moral shaming. July is typical, here.

The best response we’ve read was Neal Ascherson’s in the Independent.

“As a British citizen, I signed an open letter begging the French to vote 'Oui'. But if I had been a French citizen, I would have voted 'Non'. I signed because the impact of the French 'Non' in Britain could only be dire. It gives heart to Europhobes of right and left who want to dismantle the supranational structures of the European Union. It will close more windows in Little England, leaving it an even smaller, darker, more asphyxiating place.

For France, though, Sunday's vote was a much-needed explosion of liberty. Many passions burst through, some of them rational and others ugly. There was loathing of the Chirac government. There was fear for jobs as industry relocates in cheaper lands, and foreign workers ('the Polish plumber') compete to provide services. There was dislike of the neo-liberal, 'American' social model, seen by many French as a betrayal of the old 'social' caring principles of partnership around which the European project was built.
But above all, there was a sense that the constitution was an insult to French intelligence " all the more painful because it was prepared by complacent French statesmen. One of my French nephews told me: 'I voted No because this is such a bad text. This is not a constitution at all, which should be drawn up by a democratically-elected assembly. This is just a treaty.'”

Alas, the July response – symptomatic of the petrification of intelligence in the PS – still seems dominant among the left's European leaders. The anger that Fabius ‘betrayed” the left by moving to the popular no side is one of the great and peculiar things about the affair, with Jack Lang’s comments (all the old corrupt Mitterardians) particularly offensive. Fabius saved the credibility of the party. It is that simple. That the militants voted to support something that was total anathema to the constituency is viewed, from the July heights, as a betrayal – by the constituency! Yes, get rid of this people and get me another one -- which is, effectively, what the enlargement means. The problem with the PS is the problem of all liberal parties in the West – the Democrats, the SPD, the Labour party – a misalignment between leadership and constituency. Frankly, the rich, white male leadership of the Democratic party would like to be leading another sector of the population than the one most loyal to them – that old and unexciting one of the unions, the blacks, the divorced women, etc. How much groovier to cherry pick among the Republican constituency – those Chablis drinking urban professionals with the fabulous apartments who understand the need for flexible labor markets. That the glass ceiling for blacks in the Democratic party is harder than it is in the Republican party says a lot about the demoralized state of the former. In France, however, there is a mobilized and active left that can simply reorganize – and might – outside the holy precincts of the PS. If the Socialist leaders continue to think of themselves as the secret Tony Blair party in Europe, they are doomed.


Alain Genestier said...

Honestly I voted "oui". I feared the "non" would in fact serve ... the market fundamentalists. Not that I was very convinced by the "declaration of fundamental rights" but
1) a renegociation would only give a worse treaty (for the moment our new partners of east Europe are Thatcherites)
2) I am no fetishist of a constitution but the consequences of a rejection are not just that we end up without a constitution. We would be back to the "I want my money back" days, this time from all countries.
However, I share your disgust with the moralizing discourse of S. July (and, even worse, J. M. Colombani). My "oui" vote was a little bit neurotic because I agreed with a lot of aguments of the "non" (except the main one: the renegociation) and was incensed by the arguments and the tone of the "oui" camp.

Friendly yours,

roger said...

Alain, as always I appreciate your insights. I sort of feel like Ascherson, insofar as I could see a vote for the constitution as a vote for Europe, and I am for that project. However, the no vote has made me think a lot about the assimilation of the Central European states and the reasons behind it -- and the more I think about it, the more I think the EU has expanded much too fast and definitely in the wrong part of the economic cycle and for the wrong reasons. The idea of containing Russia is still latent behind it -- when the whole point should be integrating Russia.

Plus, of course, any constitution written under the supervision of Girard d'Etranglement de tous les sens is going to be an object of suspicion -- we aren't talking Madison here, or even Napoleon. Besides some general committments to goals of economic justice, a constitution should not outline means to those goals other than the standard right to private property, etc. To my mind, the constitution reminds me of the conservative approach in the thirties -- retain the gold standard, cut government spending -- that inevitably worsened the depression.

roger said...

Giscard, not Gerard. Man I'm making a lot of typos today.

Alain Genestier said...

Enlargement was not democratically discussed, and a lot of people got the impression that the whole project was getting mad. On the other hand, I'm quite sure that in the next future Hungary and Poland could not have formed an association with Russia. The analogy with France and Germany circa 1951 may be misleading: Germany had been totally defeated and was occupated. In the fifties, the Germans were deeply resented by the layperson in France but their military power didn't exist anymore.
Russia has not attained this toothless status. The Central Europeans (and especially the Poles) are still very afraid by Russia (with some good reasons, when you think to the sinistre Mr Putin). Any tentative by the E.U. to engage Russia would meet a fierce opposition from these countries, even if some day they become less influenced by the U.S.
A good analogy could be France and Germany...in the 1990's. France panicked at the idea of a German Europe -in part, this fear ceaseed with the Iraquian crisis ; it is also possible that the very difficulties of Germany made it less frightening for us. This fear of Germany is the main explication why the Nice treaty is so bad: to obtain that France and Germany keep the same weight in the E.U., Chirac allied himself with Spain, which got an unreasonable influence. Now that our alliances have changed, of course, we are urged to replace the "disastrous" Nice treaty by the constitution...

roger said...

Alain, you are, of course, right. I should have emphasized that it is a more natural economic fit, rather than a realistic project. I do think it could have been a more realistic project if, in the nineties, the West hadn't managed, with incredible flippancy, to foist Yeltsin on Russia after 1995 -- one of the great mistakes of the decade. Eventually, Russia has to be integrated -- otherwise, things will get very bad.

Still, I do think that the Central European economies (down, actually, to Turkey) and societies have enough of a distinctive identity that a regional economic group, sans Russie, would be better for them than being stuffed into an EU that becomes, as a consequence, unmanageably large. This doesn't entail the EU turning its back on the responsibility of helping these countries develop. This has traditionally benefited Europe -- which, unlike the U.S., never accepted that its neighbors should be incredibly poorer. I think the EU program is fundamentally sound, and it owes its soundness to the caution with which it expanded in the sixties and seventies, and the sense that it was, essentially, effecting a historic compromise between the social insurance state and capitalism.