June 1, 2000

Clinton in Europe

Bill Clinton is on a trip – promised to be his last – to Europe. This made-for-CNN event comes prepackaged with recycled headlines about the unshakable strength of the transatlantic alliance, the "unacceptability" of Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, Bill Clinton's legacy, the viability of the Third Way. Yet it already all seems so dated now. It is not just the tedious disputes that are so hard to keep track of. Americans complain about Europeans unfairly restricting imports of bananas, hormone treated beef, and genetically-modified foods. They also complain about European government aid for the Airbus consortium and a new EU aircraft noise law that allegedly discriminates against US equipment makers. Europeans turn around and complain about a US law that gives American exporters $4 billion a year in tax breaks.

Fundamentally, however, Europe and America have nothing to say to each other. Transatlantic Europe is dead on arrival. Ever since the Cold War ended, US policymakers have been doing their damnedest to figure out a justification for NATO's continued existence. NATO is the critical instrument of US supremacy. The Bush Administration came up with the need for "stability." The Clinton Administration was more cunning. It played on Europe's insecurities about its supposed terrible past. A new post-War generation had come to power in Europe. And though its only experience was of a society more tolerant than any the world had ever known, the one issue it felt passionate about was "intolerance." NATO's raison d'etre, therefore, would be to fight racism, anti-Semitism, and "ethnic cleansing." The project for the "new NATO" went together with a sudden US Government preoccupation with Holocaust restitution. Europeans had to make amends for its past. Europe's banks and industries had to fork over billions or else face legal and financial sanctions in the United States. But more was needed. A movement cannot get off the ground without someone living to hate, someone who can energize the faithful. The Serbs were made to fill in as the alleged embodiment of Europe's past. But things did not go according to plan. Last year's bombing campaign was a flop. Europe's leaders – or at least the more intelligent among them – know that NATO did not win. The Russians saved it from disaster. The "new NATO" is no longer even on the agenda.

To be sure, Europe's policymakers still find the idea of "humanitarian" crusades appealing, doubtless as a way of pretending that the European Union stands for values higher than farm subsidies and regional policy. This is why the EU jumped at the chance of showing its strong disapproval of Austria's Joerg Haider. In a retread of the good old days, President Chirac left no cliché unuttered when he recently described Serbia as "an apparently entrenched bastion, where the worst memories of Europe's past still fester: nationalism, ethnic persecution, hatred of others and contempt for freedom." In short, Yugoslavia was "an offence to the founding principles of the Union."

However, Europe's electorates are a stubborn lot. They are not interested in any of this highfalutin stuff. They just want to continue to enjoy a comfortable life. They have little taste for imperial adventures. Instead of interfering in the Balkans, they believe, the European Union should be protecting their standard of living from the depredations of globalism. Such narrow-minded parochialism infuriates Europe's elites as much as it does our own. But things are a little different in Europe than here. Perhaps it has something to do with the high voter turnouts, but unlike in the United States, politicians in Europe have to accommodate the wishes of voters.

Last year's bombing campaign was as much the elite's war in Europe as it was in the United States. But it was Europe's governments, not the Clinton Administration, which hovered on the brink of collapse just before the Russians stepped in to pull the plug on the Serbs. Year in, year out Europe's policymakers vow to make the Continent's economy more like that of the United States. They urge the creation of "flexible" labor markets, of an entrepreneurial culture. They promise to cut back on welfare, long vacations, extensive health care benefits. Europe has to become more "competitive," they cry. The trouble is, Europeans have no interest whatsoever in living under American-style capitalism. They have no wish to compete with the sweatshops of Asia and Africa. The swiftest road to electoral disaster in Europe is to start fiddling around with the welfare state. Jacques Chirac in France tried it and in 1997 lost control of the National Assembly. Helmut Kohl tried it and was ignominiously thrown out of office in 1998. His successor, Gerhard Schroeder continued where he left off and soon his poll numbers were down in the toilet. It was only when he reversed himself with a few government bailouts of industries that his fortunes began to recover.

Europe's elites shudder with horror at Joerg Haider. But the dirty little secret of Europe – and it really is not even much of a secret – is that almost everyone agrees with him. Europeans are distinctly unenthusiastic – to put it mildly – about immigrants. They lower incomes, spoil the quality of life and undermine national cultures. Most Americans believe the same thing. But in Europe politicians respond and pass laws that restrict the rights of entry of asylum seekers. Europe's elites drone on endlessly about enlarging the European Union and inviting a number of the former Soviet bloc countries to become members. As far as most European voters are concerned, however, this would be nothing short of disaster. Like Haider, they do not want to be inundated by Poles and Slovaks looking for work and undermining trade union bargaining power. Nor do they want to see BMW or Renault transferring their operations to the East. As for "free trade," Europeans expect full-blooded protectionism from the EU.

The materialist aspirations of Europe's voters and the political ambitions of Europe's elites have been the driving force behind the emergence of the European Union as a global rival to the United States. The other day, President Chirac proposed the other day the creation of "a new European rapid reaction force for the North Mediterranean area." This force would supplement the European army of 60,000 agreed to in Helsinki in December. This crisis force will allegedly soon be available for deployment outside Europe. Chirac did not explain what he meant by the "North Mediterranean area" or what sort of military missions he had in mind. Since NATO is already taking care of any possible "missions" and more, there is no military point to his proposal. It is entirely about the creation of an EU armed force. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has called for the creation of a "hard core" of EU states that would integrate more quickly than others. This so-called "multi-speed Europe" would have to be in place before any new member-states are allowed to join the EU. In other words, EU enlargement was being put on the back burner.

Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Wednesday.

Go to George Szamuely's latest column from the New York Press.

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German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer elaborated on this in greater detail in a major speech recently. "Will a majority of member states take the leap into full integration and agree on a European constitution?," he asked. "Or, if that doesn't happen, will a smaller group of member states take this route as an avant-garde, ie will a center of gravity emerge comprising a few member states which are staunchly committed to the European ideal and are in a position to push ahead with political integration?" Clearly Fischer very much prefers the "avant-garde" approach. "One possible interim step on the road to completing political integration could then later be the formation of a center of gravity. Such a group of states would conclude a new European framework treaty, the nucleus of a constitution of the federation. On the basis of this treaty, the federation would develop its own institutions, establish a government which within the EU should speak with one voice on behalf of the members of the group on as many issues as possible, a strong parliament and a directly elected president. Such a center of gravity would have to be the avant-garde, the driving force for the completion of political integration and should from the start comprise all the elements of the future federationů.The question of which countries will take part in such a project, the EU founding members, the euro-11 members or another group, is impossible to answer today." I will hazard a guess. Germany and France will be the "hard core" of the "hard core."

What is this really all about? Europe's voters fear for their high standard of living should millions of impoverished East and Central Europeans suddenly become beneficiaries of the EU. Europe's elites fear that the accession of new member-states will "dilute" Europe. The European Union will be so preoccupied trying to integrate these countries that there will be no time left over to play Great Power politics. Hence the Fischer solution: Either wait for ever for EU institutional reforms before any new country can join. Or, alternatively, change the system in such a way that there will be two EUs – a real one and a meaningless one. Kosovo really was a failure. Not because Slobodan Milosevic still rules in Belgrade. But, more important, it failed to put an end to EU political ambitions.

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