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French, Dutch saw identity threat

Trudy Rubin Philadelphia Inquirer

The best explanation for why French and Dutch voters nixed a new European constitution was put forward by a popular Dutch chef in The Hague.

“Countries are like restaurants,” Pierre Wind told the New York Times. If Dutch voters endorsed the constitution, “we could be turning into a chain, like McDonald’s.”

Think of France as a bistro with a great wine selection. The Netherlands as a restaurant with endless varieties of rijstafel. Britain as a pub with steak and kidney pie. There’s no good way to combine them short of mushing them into a food court. Just so, French and Dutch voters feared having their national identities merged into a mushy European political entity. They had good reason to object.

The European Union is a wondrous construct. In the past five decades, it has made allies out of historic enemies and brought unprecedented prosperity to Europe. But it was created as an economic union, and its high point was the creation of a single currency, the euro.

The idea that the Europeans could create one superstate out of many, a United States of Europe, was a vast overreach.

The EU has kept adding members, now numbering 25, that include former communist states where people are willing to work for less than West Europeans. In the wings is Turkey (population 70 million, mostly Muslim), which is about to start the process of accession.

The French “non”and the Dutch “nee” were a belch from citizens suffering from EU indigestion. They are no longer certain where Europe is headed, or what it means to be “European.” It’s simplistic to pass this off as a protest by anti-Muslim racists, or lazy Frenchmen who fear a closer union would force on them a U.S.-style capitalist model.

These voters were expressing an angst that should make politicians pay attention on this side of the Atlantic. This is an era of dizzying global change, when the very nature of work and society is being reinvented. Europeans – and many Americans – find it hard to envision their future. They are looking for solid ground.

In the United States, more and more people seek certainty in religion. In Europe, where the EU aims to diminish individual state sovereignty, many Europeans want to re-embrace their own national identities.

According to Europe expert Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, last week’s vote was less about the constitution’s contents and more about “the distinct renationalization of political life in Europe. There is a sense of dislocation (in Europe),” says Kupchan, “that threatens national identities.”

Politicians ignore such anxieties at their peril. They are the stuff that breeds populist backlash and radical movements of the left and the right.

So what did European politicians do? They proposed to “streamline” the EU’s decision-making powers – meaning key decisions on issues such as immigration or law enforcement could be made without agreement of all members. The politicians claimed this “streamlining” was needed because the number of EU members was expanding.

But Dutchmen feared they might lose their liberal policies on drugs, gay marriage and euthanasia. Frenchmen feared they might lose their welfare state. Whether these policies are right or wrong, citizens should have the right to choose the leaders who make them. Instead, they felt their identity being subsumed by a Brussels bureaucracy.

No wonder only one country, Spain, has approved the new constitution by referendum. In nine other countries, legislatures approved it. But the document faces stiff opposition in Denmark, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom.

For the sake of Europe’s future, its leaders need to take a political reality check.

The dream of promoting European political union was propelled by a desire to cement a united Germany into Europe in such a way that Europe’s past horrors could never return. But younger Europeans no longer fear the Germans. And Europe can’t become a political clone of the United States.

The American colonies had a hard enough time giving up powers to a central governing body, but their people at least shared a common language and a predominant Anglo-Saxon culture. Moreover, when immigrants came to America, they left their varied histories behind.

The 25 EU members bring widely diverse cultures and histories to the table. As French Ambassador to the United States Jean David Levitte recently noted: “We come with very different backgrounds, 2,000 years of different histories made of wars more than periods of peace.” Levitte thought it would take “one or two more generations” to produce one European foreign policy. The new constitution calls for a common European foreign minister. But Germany is seeking its own permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, in addition to permanent seats held by France and Britain. None of the three is willing to give up its seat in favor of one common EU representative.

Until they are, might it not make sense for EU members to reconsider the pace of political integration? Europe, as Levitte also noted, is in its longest period of peace since the Roman Empire. Why not give citizens more time to digest recent changes and figure out where they want Europe to go?

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