Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The French shoot themselves in the foot

I've been in Europe this last week, watching a lot of BBC and CNN, talking to locals in a variety of North European countries about the causes and meaning of the French rejection of the proposed EU constitution -- a rejection to be followed up today by the Dutch, a double result which will give Blair the excuse he needs to withdraw his own proposal to hold a referendum in even more Euroskeptic Great Britain.

Although the French outcome was scarcely a surprise to anyone who had been following the run-up, the shockwave caused by the actual outcome has been palpable. Pro-Europeans political leaders in mainland Europe have appeared on television, visibly shaken and humbled, bravely insisting that the EU will move forward. Anti-Europeans, especially in Britain, have been unable to contain their glee. The BBC and Euronews has showcased one British talking head after another prating on about how the lesson "European leaders" should learn from this defeat is that they need to solve their domestic problems before they spend any more time trying to integrate with the other dysfunctional economies of Europe. The scarcely-veiled undercurrent in these remarks is "once you remake your economy to be more like Britain's, then proceed with integration."

While these comments may or may not represent good policy advice for the European countries (and there can be little doubt that some labor market deregulation would behoove most mainland European countries, especially Germany), what they certainly are not is an accurate representation of the reasons why the French rejected the Constitution. Indeed, a major reason why many French voters voted No was precisely to send a message to the political establishment that they should stop trying to make the French economy more like the English one. Put another way, it was a rejection of the political establishment's consensus on what it to be done about the economic problems facing France – i.e. a rejection of neo-liberalization.

But still, despite the anti-neo-liberalism why would these venerable Europeans, the original core of the Union, rejecting the Constitution? Almost everyone seems to agree that it has little to do with the content of the Constitution per se. (The main French gripe with the Constitution en soi appears to be have been France's reduced voting share.) In fact, most of the unhappiness that led to the No vote were related to domestic issues. Among the gripes on the part of the French (and Dutch) electorate were domestic frustrations about persistent high unemployment; a feeling that the ruling elites in these countries peddle indistinguishable and failed policies; and fears that "the European model" is being undermined by "globalization" – a terms which manages to encompass nativist anti-immigrant sentiments, anti-American attitudes with regards to mass culture, and opposition to trade liberalization. (An aside: in the United States, the big political issue with regards to globalization and labor is "outsourcing" -- or, more accurately "offshoring" -- with immigration occupying a decidedly secondary position; in Europe, the big issue is immigration, while off-shoring is virtually a non-issue.) On all of these issues, the mass the populace in countries like France has felt deeply alienated from the consensus among the elite political class, which they have felt has been unresponsive. The reaction everywhere in Europe has been to vote more and more for what the mainline center-left and center-right parties like to call "extremist" parties: Greens, National Fronts, regional separatists, etc. Anything at all to simply tell "No!" to the elites.

In short, the rejection of the EU Constitution is a manifestation of a deep-seated populist backlash against the direction of the post-Cold War world, a backlash which bears telling similarities and differences with one going on in the contemporary United States. On both sides of the Atlantic, the primary drivers of the backlash are (1) the popular fears and angers in the bottom half of society engendered by 20-30 years of economic stagnation and relative downward mobility; (2) the sense that economic elites (both government and business) are in cahoots against the common man, and that political leaders offer no real economic policy alternatives to the working classes; (3) the sense that globalization -- symbolized culturally by the unabashed leering Americanism of "Hollywood" -- is undermining "traditional culture and values." For the first time since the 1930s, on both sides of the Atlantic, national populists of the right and left have recently found themselves united in resistance to these processes.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the cause of this unity is a reaction to the "end of history" or "Washington consensus" which was formed in the mid-1990s. During the 1990s, elites on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the centrist political spectrum decided, more or less, that a neoliberal economic policy and a rollback of the state’s economic responsibilities was "the only viable model." In Britain and the United States, this process was actively and explicitly promoted in political terms by the efforts of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to turn their parties away the old pro-labor, pro-regulation, anti-managerial-independence policies of the pre-1991 years. In terms of political effectiveness, this process was much more uncertain on mainland Europe (of which more in a moment), but nonetheless pronounced: keeping inflation low, "liberalizing labor markets," and opening up to freer and freer trade have been the unquestioned policy consensus of the economic leadership in virtually all OECD countries from the early 1990s.

But unfortunately, this consensus on the part of ruling parties on economic policies has been a bit of a hash. In the United States, the masses of people have not questioned these ideas, though they have been very frustrated in many cases with the results. ("If we don’t regulate industry, how can we keep Hollywood from perverting our children?") In Europe, larges swatches of the masses reject neoliberalism and multiculturalism (e.g. globalization), and are voting consistently wishing for politicians who somehow propose that something different to be done about the encroaching globe. What the mass of Europeans seem to really want is not to and plenitude of jobs where you don't have to work too hard, to be ensured that the health care and retirement benefits will remain unchanged and secure, and that immigrants (if they must come) be forced to do their best to assimilate themselves (or at least defer) to the culture profonde as the nativists see it.

This was the context for the vote on the Constitution: it was a great chance for the French people to simply declare a grand Non! to all the things they dislike: the faceless bureaucracy, the sense of foreign enchroachment, the free trade agenda, the "normalization," "regularization" and "standardization" that the EU stands for. If you were a left populist, like Jose Bove, this was a chance to denounce free trade; if you were a racist fascist like Jean-Marie Le Pen, this was a way to denounce foreigners; and if you were a royalist like Philippe de Villiers, then it was a chance to defend les valeurs tradionelles.

Ironically, a strong EU is probably the European masses' best hope for actually defending their "European model," since it is only by forming a large alternative bloc that they will be able to actively promote an agenda for a softer, gentler capitalism. But for a variety of more or less justified political reasons, the masses have felt that given the makeup and mentality of the current political leadership in their countries, handing them more power, in a more distant, untransparent form, was less likely to lead to a defense of the European way, and more likely an acceleration of its destruction. The current political leadership has certainly communicated very poorly that in order to retain some portions of the model, other portions will have to be reformed: for example, in order to keep the social safety net and the relatively short working hours, labor markets will have to be liberalized (yes, it will be easier for your bosses to fire or lay you off) and that retirement ages will have to be pushed back. Despite the fact that both the center-left and center-right have been trying to communicate this point for nearly a decade, the European masses simply have not bought it.

What has made the populist backlash so dramatic, and so shocking to the political establishment, is that the French political leadership -- of both the center-left and center-right -- have almost completely agreed on the neoliberal-multicultural policy program. And once political elites have reached a bipartisan consensus on something, it creates an interesting dynamic: on the one hand, it means that the topic no longer seems to elites really debatable, but rather just obvious and true; at the same time, for those in the electorate that disagree with the consensus, the political elites come to seem hopelessly smug, but since these populists don't have a viable mainstream alternative, they have no choice but to case a so-called "protest vote."

More generally, once the masses no longer have a mainstream party to vote for that represents a serious alternative on bread-and-butter issues, it's not a surprise that they will vote in ways that political analysts consider "irrational." If your country has a multi-party system (as in Europe), then you can vote for an "extremist" party which proposes significantly different economic or cultural policies. If your country has a two party system (as in Britain and the United States), then you cast your votes based on non-economic issues, for example on the basis of feelings about foxhunting, or Janet Jackson's wardrobe. In short, unless the people have real, substantive alternatives on the economic policy front, then of course they'll cast their votes on other bases, and perhaps not "economically rational" ones.

I don't have any good idea what the solution is to this impasse for the Europeans. One thing that would do Europe and Europeans good would be a strong executive leader, a "presidential" figure who could occupy a bully pulpit to promote "the values of Europe," both within Europe and overseas. Part of the alienation that Europeans feel from the EU is the sense that Brussels is populated by faceless bureaucrats who have no understanding of their local lives. The lack of a visible face, a true "head of state," for the EU (Romani Prodi doesn't cut it even in his own country) certainly encourages the sense of alienation from the institutions of the EU. Personally, I wonder whether it is possible for the Europeans to actually unite around a single executive figure; language issues alone would make this very difficult. But without that, the institutions of the EU inevitably feel impersonal. The habit of the Union of issuing and even naming its diktats in the worst possible bureaucratese has also certainly not helped matters.


Ed said...

What about the fact that this constitution appears to be such a wretched document that only a closed room full of Eurocrats could have come up with such a thing. While it may be true that French voters voted NON for shortsighted or even foolish reasons, I have yet to hear anyone say that this morass of a constituion is worth a OUI. The thing sucked and ought to be stuffed down the throats of the negotiators who stuffed it full of industry favors.
I would never vote for such a thing. So people voted for odd reasons. That is because the OUI camp could not argue this document protects the values of France or Europe. If they could make that case then they would not have lost.

purpleprose said...

Ed, no doubt the Constitution is poor in many ways. (A small precaution: I haven't read the whole thing, and I'll bet neither has anyone else reading this blog -- which is a damning statement in itself.) But the sorry details of the Constitution do not explain why the French and the Dutch voted against the stinky thing. It was not the brain that motivated their decision, but decidedly lower organs.