Divided We Stand

Well, at least the French aren't mortally afraid of the Germans anymore.

At one level, French voters' decisive rejection of the European Union's constitution shows that the first phase of the project of European unification -- the binding of Germany to France and its other neighbors through a series of ever-stronger links -- has succeeded to the point where it's no longer an issue. It was the French (in particular Jean Monnet) who conceived this project in the waning days of World War II. And now it's the French, freed from all fear of an aggressive German neighbor, who have brought any further moves toward unification a halt. As expected, the Dutch joined them yesterday.

The rejection of a more unified Europe is understandable, but from the standpoint of superpower politics and global social models, it's regrettable.

Whatever the divisions between the United States and Europe, two democratic superpowers are better than one -- not least because Europe, at its best, espouses values of equality and fraternity in which we in the States are frequently deficient.

It's fashionable these days for American commentators to chastise Europe (at least, continental Europe) as an economic basket case, so bogged down by regulations that its two largest economies, the German and the French, suffer from double-digit unemployment. In fact, in an era of globalization dominated by finance, neither the U.S. nor the European economies have struck a happy or sustainable balance between security and dynamism: We offer our citizens too little of the first; they offer theirs too little of the second. We extol our model but still covet the universal health insurance that Europe enjoys. We take pride in our job creation, but the wages of blue-collar Americans have slipped well beneath those of their Western European counterparts.

We are strong where they are weak and weak where they are strong -- not that you'd know this from the tone of economic and even moral superiority that many American commentators strike when commending the U.S. economic model to our European friends. I don't have any statistical data to back me up, but my hunch is that the authors of such pieces aren't among the 45 million Americans compelled to go without health insurance.

Yet, while Europe still remains a bastion -- an embattled bastion -- of social democracy, it was not just the nationalist right and farmers but also the old social democratic base, blue-collar workers in particular, who torpedoed the constitution on Sunday. Rightly or wrongly, they believed the new Europe would afford them fewer protections than the old France. Had they been asked to ratify such a document a decade ago, when the union had not yet been expanded to include the much poorer nations of Eastern Europe, the vote might have gone the other way. But with unemployment high, and with the specter of border-crossing, low-wage Polish plumbers haunting the French working class, the constitution was probably doomed from the start.

This constellation of forces -- the right-wing nationalists and the blue-collar proles -- shouldn't be all that unfamiliar to Americans, either. Does anyone really think that Americans would ratify treaties such as NAFTA if they were put to a popular vote? In America, our divisions over free trade mirror the divisions within Europe over unification. Both these internationalizing projects are the babies of business and political elites that haven't engendered much trust on these issues among their own peoples.

I don't mean to equate the two projects substantively. European unification aims to create a supranational order with at least some social democratic rules of the game, while the American free-trade order chiefly protects the interests of property and neglects those of labor and the environment. But both projects have been imposed from on high with a minimum of popular participation. Both projects have been inviting a backlash for some time now. And just as the drive for a more unified Europe stumbled on Sunday, so the U.S. creation of more free-trade accords is hitting a wall in Congress as the administration scrambles to find the votes to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Twelve years after passage of NAFTA, congressional Democrats seem finally to have realized that trade accords absent labor standards undermine all they stand for domestically, while rural Republicans are hearing from some powerful agricultural interests that CAFTA would threaten their profits.

We may not be France -- heaven forfend! -- but this looks suspiciously like the worker-farmer coalition that turned down European unification. Workers of the world are uniting, against being united on some damned elitists' terms. Presidents are uniting, too: George W. Bush, call Jacques Chirac. The two of you may have more in common than you ever dreamed.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. A version of this column appeared in The Washington Post.

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