The prospects for the future are promising and we can turn a crisis into an opportunity.
-European Commission President José Barroso, speech, Messina, Italy, 4 June 2005
With every setback, if you look hard enough you can see the opportunity.
-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, interview, Financial Times, 7 June 2005
We can once again transform crisis into opportunity, provided we manifest the will to strengthen our togetherness, reform our economies and take our share of responsibility in world affairs.
-Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Mertes, Dominique Moïsi and Aleksander Smolar, "We Must Not Let Our Greatness Flicker," op-ed, International Herald Tribune, 16 June 2005
Lisa: Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for "crisis" as they do for "opportunity"?
Homer: Yes! Cris-atunity.
-The Simpsons, Episode 2F08, "Fear of Flying"
Europe finds itself with no shortage of cris-atunity these days, thanks to the recent, stunning rebuke by voters in France and the Netherlands of the European Union's constitutional treaty. That double-barreled assault was soon followed by Britain's decision to shelve its planned vote on the constitution, and then an acrid and still unresolved fight between France and the UK over the EU's bloated budget. Throw in some energetic and unashamed media piling-on (the words "crisis" and "crunch" figure in just about every headline), and you've got a real mess in Brussels.
Leaders from the bloc's 25 nations have now gathered in the self-styled EU capital to try to figure out how to salvage the European project in the face of so much disappointment. Suddenly the political legitimacy of the Union, its financial underpinnings, its historic single currency and its future enlargement have all been called into question. But before you revel any further in watching the Brussels political elite squirm -- and there's no denying it's fun -- take a look around you and see who else is celebrating this rather spectacular implosion of European ambition.
Deriving the most pleasure from the EU's sudden misfortune -- and especially from the referendum votes, which they helped to engineer -- are a motley collection of left-wing usual suspects and anti-globalization campaigners, twinned a in bizarre coalition with anti-immigrant, proto-fascist groups on the far-right fringe. It's not a pretty sight, nor very pleasant company. It's also not an alliance (no matter how fleeting) whose message should be heeded in any way, shape or form.
True, I will confess to taking some semi-secret pleasure in the outcome of the votes, if only because it should finally drive home to Europe's leaders just how far out of touch they are with actual human beings. This should have been obvious long ago, or at least painfully clear last year when more than half of Europe's population abstained from elections for the European Parliament. And yes, there are some people -- call them the EU's conscientious objectors, Euroskeptics such as frequent TCS contributor Helen Szamuely -- who make convincing arguments for why the constitution was such a bad idea in the first place. But voters, for the most part, were not swayed by those arguments. They were expressing a more general anger -- not so much aimed at the European project but at the EU's hopelessly elitist leadership. (One French survey seeking reasons for the "non" vote found one of the top responses was, "Je m'en foutais de tout" That translates loosely as "I was f**ked off about everything.")
Even though US officials are privately reveling in French President Jacques Chirac's humiliation (and, no doubt, in yet another vivid demonstration of Why Europe Can't Get Its Act Together), they shouldn't be too happy. European integration in general is good for the US, both economically and politically. The security instruments the constitution would have created -- including a single European foreign minister and diplomatic service -- would help fight the war on terror and would make life easier for US negotiators on a host of issues. If anything can be salvaged from the constitutional fiasco, it should be those much-needed foreign policy improvements.
But the events of the next couple of days here in Brussels will show just how difficult a task Europe's leaders face in doing, well, anything. Even more dangerous than what they cannot do is what they can and will do -- especially in response to what they think was the message from the referendums. Chirac has interpreted the significance of the French vote in the worst possible way: that so-called liberal, free-market, "Anglo-Saxon" economics are to blame for his country's ills. Actually, what few will admit is that they are the only thing keeping his country viable. Other European officials are also using a lot of placatory language, hoping to reassure voters that the EU is not headed for a ruthless abandonment of the so-called "social model". European Commission Vice-President Günter Verheugen gave an interview in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in which he blamed globalization for Europe's current situation. Perhaps, to give him at least a little credit, he meant the failure of EU leaders to come to grips with globalization.
But that's just the least of their problems. There isn't a single European leader with anything approaching credibility at the moment. All of the majors have been rebuked in recent months by angry voters. These former political giants, Chirac, Gerhard Schröder and Tony Blair, are now a herd of stumbling dinosaurs, roaring inanities at each other from across the negotiation table. They only thing they can agree on now (along with the increasingly irrelevant Commission president, José Barroso) is that it's time for a "period of reflection". This, as one German journalist quipped the other day, means "they have no idea what to do".
The silver lining of the whole scenario is that recent events will embolden Blair just as he assumes the EU presidency for a six-month turn at the wheel. Even Euroskeptics can take some consolation in the fact that the EU may now be free to devolve to what the British have always argued is its best form: a free-trade bloc with limited political integration. Reverting to this status (which is, after all, pretty much how the EU started) would allow the Union to expand to include more members without becoming politically or institutionally unwieldy. In other words, it can get bigger (more people, more countries) by being smaller (less regulation, less bureaucracy). Unfortunately Messrs. Chirac and Schröder -- responding to the unfortunate message sent by their electorates, who only reflect the pathetic example set by their political leaders -- want Europe to become smaller (fewer members) by being bigger (more supposed social protection for those lucky few).
In the coming days, to deal with this purported crisis, Europe is going do what it does best: pause and reflect. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it's good. As it has shown time and again -- most recently in the run-up to the French and Dutch referendums, when the European Commission practically shut down for fear of riling voters with new legislation -- the EU is at its most effective when it does nothing.