It’s History That’s Tearing the E.U. Apart

The Washington Post, June 2005

MOVE FROM AUSTERE Paris to this anarchic city as I have done this summer, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the idea of integrating Turkey into the European Union is and always has been ludicrous. Turkey is not Europe, and it is certainly not France.

I do not say this merely because the phones, electricity, hot water and front door lock have failed on me, serially, since my arrival, along with the Internet, refrigerator and stove.

I say this because every Turk to whom I’ve spoken wants nothing more than the chance to become part of the predicted flood of cheap, unskilled labor that would almost certainly destabilize the economies and social orders of the Northern European welfare states if Europe and its periphery were to be glued together and all the borders thrown open.

The French understood that when they voted non last weekend to the European Union constitution, as did the Dutch when they followed suit with their nee on Wednesday. Contrary to the assurances of many of their politicians, people in those countries recognized that their core national values were under threat by the prospect of an expanded and unified Europe.

Istanbul is a fantastic city, don’t get me wrong — it’s utterly alive, messy and exotic. But it is sobering to reflect that supposedly thoughtful politicians have been considering the idea that France and Turkey might within our lifetimes be merged into one harmonious entity. Indeed, it is an indicator of the level of delusion that has accompanied the E.U. dream.

Deep down, the ordinary Frenchman doesn’t believe that Turks, or Eastern Europeans for that matter, cherish the values he holds most dear. Nor do the French much trust that the Germans and the British have French interests at heart. Given European history — and given what I see around me — I can’t say I blame them.

Over the past few weeks, the pro-Europe talking heads on French television have been busy poking fun at French fears of the “proverbial Polish plumber” who is ready to steal jobs from the locals. But how the pundits can argue that he is only proverbial is beyond me. If you want to test the theory, try living in a Paris apartment that needs repainting, as mine did a few weeks ago. Get estimates. French workmen will propose to do the job for 10,000 euros. The Polish painter? He can do it for 800 euros. Tomorrow. He doesn’t ask for health insurance or social security, either. And this in a country where there is already 10 percent unemployment.

If I were a French house painter or plumber, I would have voted non, too.

But the more profound ideological differences were on vivid display recently in a revealing drama on a Paris sidewalk: A shady-looking character ran up the street. Suddenly, a man wearing the familiar outfit of a French waiter rushed up behind him, yelling at him to stop, then charged into him, knocking him to the ground with a clatter. The waiter straddled the man and began slapping his face, calling him a filthy thief.

A police motorcycle roared up. Off hopped a cop who could not have been more than 25. He interposed himself between the thief and the waiter, and then, with his finger in the air, began a lecture. Never raising his voice, he told the infuriated waiter that no matter what the thief might have stolen — some customer’s wallet, it seems — he had no right to settle matters privately. The policeman outlined the procedure for filing a civil or criminal complaint.

Then he said, slowly and quite distinctly: “In France, we have the law.”

As these words rolled over the waiter — they were repeated several times — his face registered first embarrassment, then unease and then what was unmistakably a deep sense of shame. In France we have the law. Not, “There are laws against that, buddy,” as a New York cop might have said, but “In France, we have the law,” almost as if, as the representative of the state, the policeman was addressing the untamed aspect of the human heart itself. And then, with the alleged thief in custody, the policeman adjusted his sunglasses and was off.

Take note first of the “we” in the policeman’s declaration — it’s we the French, not we the Europeans. And secondly, notice his appeal to the law: These easily mocked people with their passion for abstractions really do take some things seriously. Shame registered on the waiter’s face because he realized that he had violated a social contract to which he owed his allegiance.

Sooner or later, of course, France will have to come to terms with the reality of the modern world: Its extensive social welfare system, its 35-hour workweek and its highly regulated economy cannot be sustained indefinitely. But many of the concerns that drove French voters to reject the European constitution make perfect sense. French politicians may have delivered enthusiastic encomiums to European unity for the past half-century, but it seems that the French people do indeed cherish their sovereignty — particularly their protected national labor markets, as many have observed, but also their distinct cultural identity, their legal and educational traditions, and their social stability.

In all the millions of words recently written in opinion pieces in France, uttered by French television pundits and spoken by French politicians, no one has said the most obvious ones: To hell with Europe. That’s right, to hell with Europe — to hell with integration; to hell with the super-state; to hell with playing a role like the United States’ on the international stage. No one has said, “It’s a nutty idea. It will never work. It would put us in contact with people we’ve hated for thousands of years.”

Intellectuals and public figures in France, from left to right, explain their votes by first expressing boundless devotion to the ideal of Europe itself: The people’s vote against the constitution, they say, reflects only a tactical readjustment in the great vision. The fantasy of Europe has adopted so prominent a role in the consciousness of French intellectuals that no one will speak plainly of it. No one is prepared to express what the majority of French voters really feel.

But ask a French farmer or factory worker. You’ll hear it: To hell with Europe.

According to those dismayed by the outcome of the referendum, last weekend’s no vote represented a mix of incoherent sentiments, chiefly a frustration with unemployment, a rejection of market reforms and a widespread loathing of the government of President Jacques Chirac. These issues are all real. But unemployment in France is a long-term structural problem. It would be a problem whether or not the French voted for the constitution. As for Chirac? Everyone has always disliked him.

The one thing the vote surely expressed is the unwillingness of the French to cede any more of their national identity to the fantasy of a unified Europe. It is a fantasy, of course, of very old standing. Pope Innocent III’s failed attempt to unify fractious medieval Europe was an expression of much the same fantasy. No effort to unify Europe has ever succeeded. Most have ended in blood.

That’s because the treaties that established the E.U. work at cross purposes with the essential character of the nation-state system that has been evolving in Europe since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The modern nation-state is predicated, precisely as the term suggests, on this idea: one nation, one state. The nation includes those who share a particular historical, linguistic and cultural heritage. Unsurprisingly, it is difficult to cobble nation-states together into a grand transnational entity. Unsurprisingly, they do not take well to the prospect of large-scale immigration.

What seems obvious to me, sitting in darkened rooms at night after the Istanbul power fails, is obvious to the French electorate. The electricity supply here has been unreliable because my neighbors are diverting it, causing blackouts. Here, we do not have the law.

Nobody in the French elite has been prepared to say what the French electorate has said clearly — that, even if the E.U. makes sense economically, it makes no sense historically. It reflects neither the will of a single nation-state, nor the will of an empire, based on the ability of a central political entity to dominate its periphery, nor does it reflect some form of established European identity with deep historic roots. Even the Austro-Hungarian Empire had in Austrian power — diminished as it was after 1866 — a stable and powerful center.

All of European history — all of world history — argues against a federation with no force to back it up and no way to impose its will on member states. The French voters recognized this even as the French elite failed to. The E. U. is in effect an empty empire. The only national identities up for grabs are the old national identities of the chief nation-states of Europe. And no matter how hard the E.U. bureaucrats try to turn the French identity into a European one, the people just aren’t buying it.

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