Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Liberty and Union

Why the European Constitution Had to Fail

by Robert Tracinski

The European constitution has just been destroyed by a one-two punch from the two European countries whose leaders pushed hardest for its creation. I doubt there will be any way to salvage the document now: it was too thoroughly repudiated by French and Dutch voters.


The motives of the voters were highly mixed, especially in France. Many of the Dutch complained about over-regulation by a stifling European bureaucracy (see here), which is a very good motive. The French, on the other hand, generally rejected the constitution for opposite motives, on full display in an AP article on the French vote.

"I think that the constitution will destroy our political structure. It's just about economic interests," said Anne Le Moel, a "no" voter and 42-year-old professor of philosophy, repeating what had become a battle cry among the charter's opponents....

"This is a great victory," said Fabrice Savel, 38, from the working-class suburb of Aubervilliers. He was distributing posters that read: "No to a free-market Europe."...

In the end, though, the French—torn between wanting to remain one of the engines of an increasingly competitive Europe yet fiercely protective of the generous social welfare benefits they enjoy—stuck with their perceptions that the charter posed another threat to their cherished way of life. "If you look at every sentence, every turn of phrase, practically every article has a mention of (financial) markets," Anne-Marie Latremoliere, a 57-year-old graphic designer, said after casting a "no" ballot at a polling station near the Bastille. "We want Europe to be a beautiful place," she said, "and this is certainly not it."

This article does not mention the even uglier motive behind the French "no" vote. The socialists of the left joined with the racists of the right, who oppose the European constitution because it will allow more immigration by Arabs, Africans, and Eastern Europeans.

The irony is that the Dutch are actually closer to the truth. The problem with the European constitution is certainly not that it goes too far toward implementing free-market capitalism. Quite the opposite: it consists of the establishment of a giant, all-powerful, unaccountable bureaucracy.

George Will provides some nice details in a May 29 column.

"The proposed constitution has 448 articles—441 more than the US Constitution. It is a jumble of pieties, giving canonical status to sentiments such as 'the physical and moral integrity of sportsmen and sportswomen' should be protected. It establishes, among many other rights, a right to 'social and housing assistance' sufficient for a 'decent existence.' Presumably, supranational courts and bureaucracies will define and enforce those rights, as well as the right of children to 'express their views fully.' And it stipulates that 'preventive action should be taken' to protect the environment.

"The constitution says member states can 'exercise their competence' only where the European Union does not exercise its. But the constitution gives EU institutions jurisdiction over foreign affairs, defense, immigration, trade, energy, agriculture, fishing and much more."
Part of the problem is that Europe cannot unify because it does not know whether it wants to be capitalist or socialist.

To get the people of, say, Denmark, to unite under a single political structure is not difficult: they all speak the same language, have a common culture and common values, have a fairly uniform level of education, and, as far as I can tell, pretty much look the same. There is not that much to drive them apart. But it is much harder to unify a whole continent. No narrow, concrete goal will do it, because the people of Europe differ tremendously on every concrete: they have different languages, levels of education, levels of economic development, racial backgrounds, religious traditions, regional economic interests, etc. Only something broad and universal can unite them. Which means: only an idea can unite them. Europe cannot unite until it embraces a single idea about what is the proper kind of society for man to live in.

But Europe does not know what basic ideas it wants to embrace. They don't know whether they want to have the benefits of freer markets (the original purpose of the European Economic Community) or to protect the status quo of their bloated welfare state.

This indecision has awful practical consequences. On NPR yesterday (don't ask why) I heard a brief interview with the owner of a small Dutch window-washing business, who complained that he had to buy expensive new equipment to comply with EU safety regulation for employees who work "at heights"—so he has to buy a cherry-picker instead of using good old-fashioned ladders. But at the same time, the EU opens Dutch markets to competition from Eastern European window-cleaning crews. And since Eastern European economies would never survive if they had to comply with the same minimum wage requirements, work-week restrictions, and safety regulation imposed in Western European countries, they are simply exempted from those regulations. So this Dutch window-cleaner has to shell out money for a cherry-picker—while he loses customers to cheaper Eastern European competitors who are allowed to use ladders.

That is the crazy, contradictory mixture of freedom and controls that is being imposed under the European constitution. The result is that economic "ultra-liberalism" takes the blame for the problems created by the controls.

But the problem is not just that Europe can't figure out whether they want capitalism or socialism. The problem is that Old Europe leans toward socialism. Government regulation is an engine for ripping people apart, for turning them into a mob of competing "pressure groups," each demanding government favors and protections, while trying to strip away the favors and protections enjoyed by other groups.

This is part of the reason why the European constitution is so long and complex. A charter for liberty can be very short: it need only name a few basic government institutions, define their small number of legitimate powers, and explicitly name a few broad principles that limit government actions. That is what the US constitution does, which is why it is so small that you can carry it around in the breast pocket of your shirt and probably even forget that it's there.

To lay out a charter for a socialist government, by contrast, you have to establish dozens of separate government agencies and commissions with complex, interlocking regulatory powers, and you have to limit those agencies with hundreds of concrete exceptions to protect the prerogatives of tiny sub-constituencies. This is why the European constitution is 450 pages long.

It is no wonder that every nation feels uneasy about this document. They have to worry that in this forest of complex regulations, they are going to be the ones who end up being the victims who are looted for the benefit of others. And there is no reliable way for them to tell.

That's what leads to the sense that the European constitution creates an unaccountable, oppressive bureaucracy—because this is what must happen in a socialist society.

One of the consequences of having a constitution that is 450 pages long is that no one really knows what it does or doesn't do. It is so long and complex that only a handful of professional bureaucrats can even begin to comprehend all of its provisions. And I don't think even the professionals can integrate such a chaotic jumble. Instead, the professional bureaucrats will simply comb through the myriad clauses and sub-clauses until they find one that will justify whatever nanny-state regulation or narrow special interest they are trying to advance at the moment. This is the way in which socialism is always, inevitably, inimical to representative government. The more power the people's representatives give to the government, the more power they give away to unelected bureaucrats.

That is the real essence of the European constitution. It is not that people know that it will be used to promote "markets" or that they know it will be used to promote socialism. It is that they sense it will create a political entity whose actions cannot be predicted or controlled. That is the overall sense that actually seems to be uniting Europe, and uniting it in opposition to the constitution. The one thing you hear from both left and right—from French socialists, Dutch euthanasia advocates, and British conservatives—is the sense that the European constitution creates a political elite that is not accountable to its subjects.

If a universal idea is required to unite a diverse continent, the only idea that will actually succeed at that task is the concept of liberty. Only a government whose powers are few and limited can be easily understood and controlled by its citizens. Only a government limited to the protect of individual rights can avoid pitting special interest groups against one another, for the simple reason that it offers so few government favors for them to fight over. Only a continent whose citizens are committed to free minds, free enterprise, and free trade can avoid the temptation to cannibalize one another and form an amicable union.

The Europeans will not discover a way to unite Europe until they discover and embrace the benefits of capitalism. And that is why the European constitution had to fail.