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Sunday 5 June 2005

EU constitution: a French pig in a poke?

I adore and hate the French, but mostly they make me laugh. On the plus side, they have style in abundance: it’s no wonder they gave us the word ‘panache’. Having no taste for the hair shirt, they have long enjoyed seducing into a world of pleasure people who had not previously appreciated the importance of good food, wine, elegant clothes and sybaritic sex. 

The debits… oh, where shall I start? An absence of moral seriousness, intellectual pretension as preposterous as the berets of that old pseud, Jean Paul Sartre, a thoughtless cruelty that has their protesting farmers setting fire to lorry-loads of live English lambs and so on and on. But in the context of the EU, it’s their idleness, self-deception, selfishness, arrogance, snobbery and obsession with gloire that have led to this present crisis.

Still, thank you, France. Your deficiencies may have got us into this mess. But your deficiencies have also got us out of it – at least temporarily.

It was the French who inspired and drove forward what became the EU – and in the context of post-war Europe, cooperation and a common market were worthy aims. The enthusiasm shown it today by Eastern European countries shows how the club can initially give confidence to countries seeking to expand their horizons and opportunities. It did that for us. But even the newest members are becoming at the way in which flourishing, flexible economies are being asked to shore up unsuccessful and sclerotic disasters like France, Germany and Italy. 

A problem from the start was that pragmatism is a dirty word in France. There was none of the scepticism and the ‘let’s-see-how-things-work-out-and-not-make-rash-decisions’ that one associates with the Anglo-Saxons or the Scandinavians (it’s a Protestant thing). The French are big on vision (it’s a Catholic thing) – in this case, they wanted a United States of Europe. 

What was more, because the French ruling classes think they’re God, with the help of the obedient, guilt-ridden Germans, they created the Common Market-turned-European-Economic-Community-turned-European-Union in their own dirigiste image: centralised, bossy and remote from, and contemptuous of, the people whose lives they sought ever more and more to control. 

It was a model that brought us the ultimately ruinous Common Agricultural (a third of its subsidies, incidentally, go to France) and Common Fisheries policies, a regulatory system that is strangling enterprise and freedom and government by a shameless army of the unelected elite whose accounts are unaudited, financial scandals uninvestigated and whose response to whistle-blowers is to sack them 

Its modus operandi proved contagious: more and more members of the cosy Council of Ministers agreed to the gradual erosion of their nations’ sovereignty. 

So the Euro came about, and the Danes and the British, who refused to join, were told that outside the Eurozone lay disaster. Well, that wasn’t the way it turned out. ‘Der Euro macht uns kaputt’ (‘The Euro could do for us’) said Stern last week, revealing that 56% of Germans wanted the mark back. 

A major element in the Dutch opposition to the constitution was a belief that they were more prosperous with the guilder. With some of the member countries in desperate need of cuts in interest rates to encourage growth and others equally frantic to have rates raised to counter inflation, the inherent nonsense of a one-size-fits-all currency is being exposed. 

The Stability Pact was to have kept the currency health, but it became inconvenient for France, which ratted, followed by Germany, France, Italy, Holland, and Greece. 

Goodbye stability. 

Meanwhile, the French bullied other states into agreeing that the person to put in charge of devising a constitution to suit an enlarged Europe was a 76-year old Frenchman. 

Ex-President Giscard d’Estaing – grand, self-regarding and supercilious – epitomises the most risible aspects of the French ruling elite. As Chairman of the Constitutional Convention he listened to no one, a job left to the secretary-general, Lord Kerr, once head of the British Foreign Office, and a master of achieving compromise in the most difficult circumstances. 

Kerr has since admitted that the resulting document was ‘a mess’, ludicrously elaborate, wildly over-ambitious in areas like defence and foreign affairs and ambiguous in vital areas of economic policy. When the arguments got too much, says Kerr, ‘we thought: “Oh shit, this is difficult stuff”, and we didn’t do anything about it.’

Even the Council of Ministers baulked at the diner du chien that resulted in 2004, but salvation seemed to be at hand. The new President of the EU was Bertie Ahern, deal-maker extraordinaire and a master of constructive ambiguity. As with the Good Friday Agreement, Bertie was not going to ask anyone to resolve internal contradictions: he wanted them ignored. He smoozed his way around Europe securing a concession here and a rewording there and finally he cobbled together something that the whole Council could accept.

And then the ungrateful French turned around and wrecked the cosy consensus that was to give us a document with horrifying ramifications that no one understood. Like the Dutch a few days later, they did so for an apparently bewildering array of reasons: want a more/less powerful Europe; want more/less regulation and more/less central planning; don’t like enlargement; really don’t want Turkey; fed up with immigrants; and so on and on. 

But at root was the voters’ resentment that those who ruled them didn’t listen to them. It was the eruption of the people power the rulers of Europe liked when it happened in places like the Ukraine. It wasn’t supposed to happen at home. 

True to form, as soon as the voters gave the wrong answer, their rulers tried to discount them. Faced with the proof that he was out of touch with his own citizens, what did President Chirac do? 

He replaced his prime minister with his crony Dominique de Villepin, who has never stood for elected office, is disliked in his own party and is about as people-friendly as Louis XIV on a bad day. 

That’s the great thing about the French. Love ‘em or hate ‘em. You have to laugh.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards