Thursday, June 02, 2005

# Posted 12:58 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE E.U. RORSHACH TEST: I may not have my own opinion about what's going on in Europe, but I am pretty confident the significance of the 'no' votes in France and the Netherlands has eluded much the American punditocracy, both right and left.

At the heart of this confusion is the remarkable ability of pundits of almost every stripe to project their own identity on to that of the victorious anti-constitution majority. The American center-left has persuaded itself that the 'no' vote represents a backlash against laissez faire Anglo-Saxon capitalism. According to Richard Bernstein of the NYT,
The governing parties of the left and the right are saying the same things to their people: that painful, free-market economic reforms are the only path toward rejuvenation, more jobs, better futures. And the people, who have come to equate the idea of an expanded Europe with a challenge to cradle-to-grave social protections, are giving the same answer: We don't believe you.
In the Post, Harold Meyerson asserts that
While Europe still remains a bastion -- an embattled bastion -- of social democracy, it was not just the nationalist right and farmers but also the old social democratic base, blue-collar workers in particular, who torpedoed the constitution on Sunday. Rightly or wrongly, they believed the new Europe would afford them fewer protections than the old France.
In contrast, American conservatives are celebrating the defeat of the constitution as the rejection of everything represented by the left-leaning European elite. William Kristol writes that
The debate hasn't hinged on questions of E.U. governance. It has turned on something more fundamental--a collapse of confidence in the political and media establishment in France and the Netherlands, and in Western Europe altogether.
This observation leads Kristol to the counterintuitive conclusion that
The debate over the constitution opens up the prospect for a broader debate, and a chance for wider rethinking--of Europe's failing welfare states and growth-stultifying, upward-mobility-denying economies; of its failing immigration and multiculturalism policies; of its anti-Americanism and coolness to the cause of freedom and democracy around the world; of its failure to be serious about the threats confronting it and us. All of these are now legitimate subjects of public discussion.
My sense is that Kristol has things exactly back-to-front. The French and Dutch repudiations will lead injured European politicians to protect the popular European welfare state ever more obsessively. And if that doesn't work, Chirac, Schroeder, et al. may resort to the America-bashing that has bolstered their popularity so effectively before. As Philip Gordon argues in TNR,
Americans should hold their applause, which they may soon come to regret. That's because the eclectic group of angry French leftists, populists, nationalists, and nostalgics who opposed Chirac and the constitution had very different--in fact, precisely opposite--reasons for doing so than the Americans who cheered them on. In other words, if you didn't like French policies before Sunday, you're going to like them even less now.
So, does this mean that liberals such as Bernstein and Meyerson are correct, i.e. that the results of the French and Dutch referenda amount to an overwhelming endorsement of left-wing social democracy?

My fairly confident answer to that question is 'no', because the liberals seem to underestimate just how much the anti-constitution vote reflected a non-ideological resentment of the way in which the European political class has imposed its vision of a united continent on a frustrated electorate. According to Anne Applebaum,
The democratic deficit was built into the European project from the beginning, and it has grown along with Europe's institutions...

The popular response to this erosion of democracy -- which has coincided with an economic slowdown in much of Europe, as well as a wave of North African and Eastern European immigration -- has been an anguished and inchoate series of "anti-establishment" protest votes.
'Inchoate' is a good word to describe the situation, because it seems almost impossible to discern any positive agenda shared by the collective opponents of the constitution. David Brooks' formulation of this dynamic seems to capture the confusion rather well:
Influenced by anxiety about the future, every faction across the political spectrum found something to feel menaced by. For the Socialist left, it was the threat of economic liberalization. For parts of the right, it was the threat of Turkey. For populists, it was the condescension of the Brussels elite. For others, it was the prospect of a centralized European superstate. Many of these fears were mutually exclusive. The only commonality was fear itself, the desire to hang on to what they have in the face of change and tumult all around.
To a certain extent, I am puzzled by the fact that the relatively bland E.U. constitution has become the Rorshach-style ink blot onto which European citizens have projected all of their resentments. Yet there are few things that antagonize democratic citizens more than an institution that threatens to take away their control of even some small part of their own lives and hand it over to unelected bureaucrats.
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