TCS Daily

Thumbs Up Over Thumbs Down?

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - June 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Are you happy about the demise of the EU constitution -- in both France and the Netherlands? Does the report that Tony Blair's government is going to give up on the European Union thrill you to no end? How about discussions regarding the possibility that the euro may be ditched? Does reading such news make you happy?

Perhaps it does. And perhaps much of that happiness stems from the increasing hope that individual European countries will avoid being placed under the overweening and exacting control of a European superstate centered in Brussels -- a superstate that interferes in all manner of cases. Perhaps much of the happiness stems from the belief that individual European countries will be spared the antiquated and out-of-touch economic management stemming from Brussels.

Perhaps, you believe, the Europeans have successfully thrust aside the sclerotic bureaucracy that hindered effective and dynamic policymaking and opted instead for a devolution of power that would help energize the European socioeconomic and sociopolitical structure, instead of a centralization of power that would kill every creative policy impulse yet remaining on the continent. And perhaps your sensibilities were offended by the idea of voting for a gigantic 300 plus page constitution that no one has read and that no one understands and you are pleased to see that others share your good taste.

If you believe all of this was behind the decision to vote down the EU constitution, I hope that you are right. But while I certainly hoped to see the EU constitution voted down because I did not want to witness the creation of yet another Leviathan-like political structure, because I did not want to see the political institutions responsible for propagating failed economic policies receive public approbation and because I too believe that the EU constitution was both wordy and incoherent, I fear that the reasons behind the thumbs-down votes in both France and the Netherlands will come to haunt advocates of economic liberalization who want to see Europe adopt our ideas and succeed through their adoption.

Increasingly, the decision to vote down the EU constitution is being attributed to political and social movements whose interests are directly antithetical to those of free-market advocates. As this article points out a strange coalition consisting of "the far right, communists, nationalists, dissident Socialists and anti-globalization groups" banded together to sink the EU constitution. It may have been necessary -- if utterly distasteful and revolting -- for free-market forces to ally themselves with such a motley collection of political Know-Nothings in order to achieve a desirable result. The ends justify the means, and all that. But we are well beyond the point of cobbling together a politically effective coalition of strange bedfellows. At this point, free-market advocates should be concerned that the Know-Nothings are hijacking the cause of defeating the EU constitution and spinning the results as a repudiation of capitalism and globalization.

As Charles Paul Freund points out, the response of the French political class to the decision by the French populace to reject the EU constitution has been to tack hard to the Left. In the wake of the rejection, President Jacques Chirac has pledged to the French that France would -- among other things -- "maintain inflexible management and labor unions, six-week vacations, a 35-hour workweek," this despite the fact that France has been contending with double-digit unemployment for close to fifteen years. And Matt Welch rightfully warns that the rejection of the EU constitution could lead to "more illiberal policies, rising trade barriers, and stronger anti-Americanism."

Of course, it does not necessarily have to be as Welch fears. Consider this story regarding the motivations behind the Dutch decision to reject the EU constitution:

        "Among the main complaints, reflected in opinion polls, is that the Dutch feel 
        pushed around by the big countries and that the union's heavy bureaucracy 
        lacks transparency and democracy and is growing too fast. They resent that 
        they are already the union's largest net per capita contributor without 
        being the richest member, and that the new constitution would lessen their 
        voting power.

        "The Dutch were furious when, after seriously tightening their belts in 
        the last two years to respect European Union budget rules, France and 
        Germany ignored those same rules. More recently they were irritated 
        when Italy and Greece admitted that they had provided the union with false 
        budget information."

Remarking on this, blogger and political science professor Daniel Drezner notes that he is more sympathetic to the Dutch reasons for voting no than he is to the reasons the French used to oppose the constitution. So am I. But the challenge will be to ensure that in the postmortem following the rejection of the EU constitution, it will be the Dutch policy concerns that prevail and impel any further work on political and economic integration in the European Union. Otherwise, in any reworking of the EU constitution, the very emphasis on heavy bureaucratic structures and the very lack of transparency and democracy that prompted the Dutch to vote "nee" might return with a vengeance. Even if countries like the Netherlands renew their rejection, EU officials may decide to restrict membership to the EU to countries that embrace a more anti-capitalist and anti-free-market vision of the future, a vision such as the one currently dominating the French political landscape.

It may be well and good that the EU constitution was defeated. But we ought to ensure that it was defeated for the right reasons and that involves ensuring that anti-free-market forces do not hijack the movement opposing the EU constitution and use it in order to force Europe to turn away from economic liberalization. One political battle may have been resolutely decided. But free-market advocates should not sit on their laurels. Another political battle awaits us.

The author is a TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.


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