June 8, 2005

June 8, 2005 | Commentary on

European Disunion

One of the cheap lines used by French President Jacques Chirac in his recent flop of a campaign for the European constitution was that a " 'No' to the Constitution is a 'Yes' for George Bush."

Ironically, it speaks volumes about the state of Mr. Chirac's popularity that French voters displayed an even greater distaste for their own president than they have for ours, and turned down the Constitution by a very solid 55 percent on May 29. On June 1 Dutch voters followed the lead of the French, rejecting the EU Constitution by an even more unequivocal 63 percent.

On the principle that even a broken clock is right twice a day, Mr. Chirac in some ways did have a point. Though the Bush administration has wisely and scrupulously stayed out of the debate over the EU Constitution, the fact is that the United States and European powers of an Atlanticist outlook stand to benefit from the actions of the French and Dutch electorates. The reason they do is that the trans-Atlantic relationship in recent years has been significantly strained by the drive for deeper European integration.

American policy since the 1950s has always been generally supportive of European cooperation through the European Community and later of the European Union; it has been an economic bulwark against communist expansion and a guarantee against a repeat of the World Wars of the 20th century. Well, who could argue with that?

The problem has been more recently that a more integrated Europe with stronger common political institutions has not necessary made for a stronger partnership with the United States, as some like to argue. In fact, precisely the opposite has happened. The trans-Atlantic crisis of the last few years goes beyond disagreements over American policy in Iraq, to the very heart of European identity and the nature of the EU project.

So, if Europeans were to agree at their ministerial meeting on June 16 that the Constitutional ratification process is dead in the water following the French and Dutch votes, and the British decision as of last week not even to have a vote, and were they to start rethinking the premises of European integration, both sides of the Atlantic could stand to benefit. As we have seen, there is widespread disagreement within Europe over what the EU Constitution is or should be -- not only between different member states, but also between European elites and European voters.

For one thing, there is no doubt that the vision of the EU as an international counterweight to the United States fortunately has foundered. This vision, of course, is particularly associated with the French government of Mr. Chirac and his former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. (In one of the least promising political decisions of the year, Mr. Chirac reacted to the French No-vote by appointing Mr. De Villepin to the post as prime minister).

French influence over EU decision-making has been greatly diminished since the union enlarged to 25 members in May. Gone are the days when the EU could be described as a train with Germany as the engine and France as the driver. Many other EU members -- the Central and East Europeans, the British, the Dutch and the Scandinavians -- do not want their relationship with the United States constantly jeopardized.

Further, the anti-Americanism that broken into full flare in Europe over the Iraq war has deeper roots than the politics of the moment. It certainly has something to do with the search for a European identity, which has proven quite elusive. One reason is history; Europeans have for centuries perfected the art of national stereotyping - aimed at each other as they have lived and fought on close quarters on the small and heavily populated European continent.

Another reason is language. The EU has not even been able to come up with the words to a European anthem, as no one could agree which language the text should be. The tune is Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," which you can therefore hum, but not sing.

As the "other" in contrast to which to identify a European character, Europe's Muslim population has internally become that "other." Externally, Americans serve the same purpose. If you cannot exactly say what it means to be European, at least you know you are not like those gun-toting American cowboys, like that George Bush.

What Europe's leaders should do now, after the cataclysms of the French and Dutch referendums, is to take a deep breath and ask ordinary Europeans what kind of future they really want, in positive terms. That question has been put off for far too long.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times