Thursday, 14 April 2005

French Malaise - from my mate Daniel Hannan MEP

The Euro-sophists are getting in their excuses in advance. This vote in France, they say: it isn’t really about the EU constitution at all. If the French vote No on 29 May, it won’t be a rejection of Brussels, but of Chirac and his ministry. That’s the trouble with these wretched referendums, you see: people will insist on voting on the wrong question. In fact, they go on, the French don’t think the constitution goes far enough. What they think – and they’ve got a point, dear boy – is that it enshrines a British view of Europe. Odd to see you antis lining up with these ultra-federalists.
Most British commentators, including a fair number of Euro-sceptics who ought to know better, seem to have swallowed this line. It makes for good copy, and allows the writer to flaunt his knowledge of French politics. But it bears very little relation to what is actually happening across the Channel.
Let us deal, first, with contention the French and British No campaigns are pushing for opposite things. It is certainly true that the bulk of French opposition to the constitution comes from the Left (although by no means all of it: if there were not also substantial scepticism on the Right and in the Centre, the Yes campaign would be miles ahead).“Et alors?”, as the French say. So what if French socialists and British Tories have different visions of employment law, social policy or human rights? These are questions for general elections. What is at stake in the referendum is whether national parliaments should decide such matters, or whether they should be settled at EU level. On this issue, the French and British No campaigns – and, indeed, the Danish, Dutch, Czech and all the rest – are united.
There were, admittedly, one or two French politicians who would have liked the constitution to go even further, notably the Centrist leader, François Bayrou. But they quickly fell into line behind the Yes campaign once the referendum was called, for the good reason that, from their point of view, the constitution represents a considerable improvement on the status quo. As during the Maastricht referendum in 1992, there is now a near-unanimous line-up of French politicians in favour of closer integration.
Which brings us to the question of whether the referendum is really a rejection of the political class by everyone else – or, as they say in France, of the pays légal by the pays réel. Yes, of course it is. Of all the stereotypes that the British have of the French, one is outstanding in its accuracy: they are grumpy. And they have plenty to be grumpy about, being governed as they are by a self-serving cartel. The point is that they have accurately clocked that European integration is making their government even less accountable. They have grasped that the constitution, by transferring more powers from national parliaments to EU institutions, will remove decisions still further from the people.
To put it the other way around, voting against the constitution means voting against a system of governance that elevates technocracy over democracy. The point is well made in that masterpiece, The House at Pooh Corner:
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.Pooh nodded thoughtfully.“It’s the same thing,” he said.
If you feel that administration is already too remote at home, you are hardly going to want to transfer powers to even more distant institutions. If you have had enough of unelected commissars and énarques in Paris, you don’t want to pushed around by another set of commissars and énarques in Brussels. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing”, he said.
The French governing class is the chief beneficiary of the European system. For most of the EU’s history, French civil servants have dominated the Commission. Indeed, the timing of the Commission annual recruitment was timed to coincide with French exams. The very bureaucrats whom the French resent at home, in other words, are also the people who run Brussels.
French souverainistes have been quick to make the connection. One of my friends in the Vendée is campaigning under the slogan “Do yourself a favour: vote no” (Faites-vous plaisir : votez non”). “People are fed up with the whole racket,” he told me. “With the unemployment, with the corruption, with Chirac, with their boss, with their wife or their husband. So I am inviting them to say no to the lot of them”.
This also explains, by the way, why the Left is leading the No coalition this time, whereas the Right – in the shape of Philippe de Villiers and Philippe Séguin (who has since gone over to the Dark Side) – led the anti-Maastricht campaign thirteen years ago. When the socialists were in power, anti-politician feeling was concentrated on the Right; now it is the other way around.
We do not yet know the result of course. My sense, having spent a week with the No campaign in the Camargue, is that they are ahead. But I could be wrong; I often am. In 1992, many voters were moved at the last minute by the pathos of President Mitterand’s announcement that he had cancer. And even so, it was the closest imaginable result. Indeed, the voters of mainland France narrowly rejected Maastricht, but the result was tipped by massive Yes votes in outre-mer and from French voters resident abroad. French Guyana registered a Yes vote of 74.2 per cent, Martinique of 67.4 per cent, Guadeloupe of 72.1 per cent, and there were similar results in the rest of France’s colonial archipelago. Quite why this should have happened has never been adequately explained. These are after all – at the risk of stating the obvious – non-European territories, many of which have a strong tradition of backing the Communist party, which was against the treaty. Could it simply be that the counts took place far away, in different time-zones, and with few scrutineers? It would certainly explain why President Mitterand was able to assure John Major that there had been a narrow Yes vote long before the polls had closed.
But let us hypothesise, for a moment, that the souverainistes carry the day. What would happen next? Would the EU tear up the constitution, go back to the drawing board and try to come up with something better? Not a chance. This would not, after all, be the first time that the project had been rejected. It happened when the Danes voted against Maastricht, when the Irish voted against Nice and, indeed, when the markets voted against the ERM. On all these occasions, the EU simply carried on as before. There is no Plan B in Brussels; Plan A is simply resubmitted over and over again until it is bludgeoned through.
Don’t take my word for it. Large parts of the constitution are already being implemented today, even though ten national referendums are still outstanding. The Charter of Fundamental Rights is being treated as justiciable, even though only four states have ratified the constitution that gives it binding force. Substantial elements of the proposed harmonisation of justice and home affairs are being carried out in anticipation of the referendum results. Now the EU is launching its own diplomatic service, despite the strong possibility that at least one country will reject the constitution that gives it a legal basis.
It is little wonder that the French, in common with every other nation in Europe, feel taken for granted. When people complain that politicians are all the same, that it doesn’t matter how you vote, that the élites will go ahead and please themselves regardless, they are not simply letting off steam; they are accurately appraising the conduct of European policy over the past half century. The founders of the EU deliberately designed the system that way. They knew that their project – the merging of Europe’s nations – would never come off if it had to be periodically referred to the national electorates. So they evolved a method whereby harmonisation could be effected in smoke-filled rooms (or, these days, smoke-free rooms) and then presented to the peoples as a fait accompli.
A No vote, on its own, will not be enough. As long as the same governments remain in power, they will pursue their existing European policy, even if it must formally be done through the old treaties rather than through the constitution. The only way to change the direction of the EU is to alter the complexion of national parliaments – to put majorities in place who believe in decentralisation and democracy. The trouble in France is that, with the exception of Philippe de Villiers’ Mouvement pour la France, there is no such party. But in Britain, happily, there is. That is why the decisive vote in this country is not the putative referendum next March, but the intervening general election.

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