Brussels is burning

Posted: Jun 03, 2005 12:00 AM

If Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, then I've got a case of Eurofreude - or Francofreude, or maybe something else. All I know is this: The Europeans who annoy me are moping like they found a fingernail in their brie, and I'm feeling mighty freude. Or schaden. Or whatever.

The decision by French voters to reject the proposed European Union Constitution by 55 percent to 45 percent was a knockout blow all by itself. But when the Dutch voted down the constitution by nearly a 2-1 margin, it was as if the voice in the wind blowing off those windmills was shouting in Dutch ears, "Kick 'em again!"

Now it looks like the British won't even hold a referendum on the thing, which means in all likelihood that this version of the EU project is doomed. (Doomed, I tell you! Bwahahaha!)

That is simply great news. In recent years the entire EU project - at least in Western Europe - has taken on an anti-American flavor. Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac - the lame duck and electorally doomed leaders of Germany and France, respectively - have kept their political engines running on the fumes of anti-Americanism in recent years. The EU project has been sold as a means of counterbalancing the American "hyperpower," as the French call it. If a project with that kind of billing stumbles - and stumbles badly - and if anti-American nags like Schroeder and Chirac take it in the pants in the process, there can be no more appropriate response from the intelligent American than to dance a jig, do a shot, and wave the giant foam "We're #1" finger in the air.

But American political leaders should do that behind closed doors. Public gloating wouldn't be in our interests.

Indeed, once we get that out of our system, there's a great deal we should be cautious about. The EU Constitution didn't fail because of widespread pro-American sentiment. It failed because French and Dutch voters saw their national - and personal - interests at odds with the constitution. The last thing we should do is distract European voters' attention away from the economy, immigration and the like by making them angry at us. Gloating would only invite precisely the sort of anti-American pique Chirac and Schroeder have exploited since before the Iraq war.

One of the fascinating factors in the French referendum was that anti-Americanism of one kind or another motivated both yes and no voters. The yes voters were interested in, among other things, creating the sort of European superstate the French have envisioned for decades. The no voters were concerned that the EU Constitution would usher in American-style "ultraliberalism" (one thing the Europeans do have going for them is they still use the word "liberal" correctly).

The French have absurdly lavish social welfare policies, particularly for the middle class and for workers. Opening France to more economic competition threatens their cushy perks. (I knew a French businessman who wanted to fire a lousy truck driver who kept missing work. He had to make an appointment with government bureaucrats six weeks in advance in order to get permission to fire his own employee.)

This points to one of the great ironies of globalization: It imposes a regression to the global mean. Various commentators have marveled at the fact that Britain and France think the EU Constitution means opposite things. The Brits don't like it because they fear it will bring Euro-socialism, while the French fear it will move France in the laissez-faire direction. Many have attributed this to voter confusion over what the constitution actually says. Why else would the Brits think it's a socialist tract while the French are convinced it's a plan for economic liberalization?

While it's true that the proposed constitution reads like a Xerox machine repair manual, the voters aren't that confused. France's bourgeois welfare state would have to be unraveled under the new regime, while comparatively free-market Britain would find its economy pulled toward greater statism.

Add the fact that the document itself is impenetrable and you can hardly blame voters for erring on the side of caution. You don't roll the dice when you might potentially be voting away your sovereignty and lifestyle. For the record, though, the constitution is no free-market tract - if Adam Smith were alive, he'd spontaneously burst into flames if he read it.

Of course, there were other reasons the constitution failed so spectacularly, including: 1) The French political system is scandalously undemocratic, and the French people felt they hadn't been consulted. 2) This may have been the last chance voters had to express their fears of Turkey joining the EU. 3) Chirac and Schroeder are unpopular fossils. 4) Ours is a just and decent God.

In any case, America and Europe have a wonderful opportunity to rework this project along lines that are in Europe's interests and ours. Let's just hope that French and German egos can handle Uncle Sam coming to the rescue - again.