A less perfect union

Posted: Jun 20, 2005 12:00 AM

LONDON -- The recent rejection of the European Union constitutional treaty by the voters of France and the Netherlands has led to the opposite of the "ever closer union" that has been the goal of the fathers of the EU since it was established in 1957. British Prime Minister Tony Blair had been looking forward to shaping the EU under its new constitution in Britain's six-month presidency of the union, which starts next month. And he had been looking forward to persuading British voters to approve the EU constitutional treaty in the referendum slated for next year.

  Now all those plans are off. After the French and Dutch votes, Blair called for a "pause for reflection," and last week the French foreign minister said the issue would not be submitted to voters again. Since the EU constitution requires approval by all 25 member nations, it is obviously dead.

 Instead, the leading nations are squabbling. French President Jacques Chirac called for a scaling back or elimination of the rebate Britain negotiated from the EU in 1984. In response, Blair attacked the huge subsidies French farmers have been receiving from the EU. Blair has a point. Britain contributes far more to the EU and gets far less out of it than France. The farm subsidies enrich citizens of a rich country and tend to bar imports from Third World countries that desperately need markets for their agricultural products.

 The EU seems headed not to a closer union but to one that is flying apart.

  On the face of it, this goes against the stated policies of the United States. Since World War II, American governments have favored European unification. Postwar American statesmen admired Jean Monnet, the intellectual father of the EU, and found him a refreshing contrast with the shortsighted European officials of the pre-World War II period.

 Americans, like many Europeans, hoped that a common market would prevent European powers -- especially France and Germany -- from going to war, as they had done so disastrously in 1914 and 1939.

 Americans may also have had a sentimental attachment to the idea that Europe was following our example, uniting a continent into a single market and a single continent-size nation. And to the extent that the EU has actually provided a common economic market -- leave aside its agricultural protectionism -- a united Europe was thought to be in the economic interest of the United States.

  Policies that economic elites favor for good reasons and that diplomatic elites favor for sentimental reasons are seldom re-examined. Thus, successive American administrations of both parties have followed the Truman and Eisenhower policies favoring European unification. The Bush administration, most recently in statements by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, signaled approval of the EU constitution.

  Yet it was far from apparent that the constitution was in the interests of the United States. It aimed at establishing a European foreign ministry intended to harmonize and overshadow the foreign policies of the 25 member states.

 In practice, that might well have meant domination by the French and German governments. Remember that France and Germany worked against us on Iraq, even when EU member states Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic supported us. A lowest-common-denominator European foreign policy might well have turned out to be a counterweight to, rather than an ally of, the United States.

  The arguments now going on between Britain and France and other EU members, in contrast, could work out in our favor. At least some of the provisions of the EU under attack are very much contrary to the Bush administration's policy goals. The farm subsidies, 25 percent of which go to France, have been a huge obstacle to a new international trade agreement. Anything that undermines those subsidies works in our favor.

 Moreover, the French and Dutch votes got Blair to switch emphasis -- away from knitting Europe together and toward aiding Africa. Bush has already shown a willingness to increase funding of AIDS programs to unprecedented levels and has argued that aid efforts should be continually monitored for effectiveness.

 The EU's "ever closer union" unfortunately emphasized the selfish interests of some countries, especially France.

 The move to a more fractious union could enable both the United States and willing EU members to constructively direct their attention to those needing help in the rest of the world.