The European Union formally welcomes 10 new members on Saturday, in the process extending its borders all the way to Russia's doorstep. It is a monumental triumph for the architects of European integration, and with agreement on a draft constitution for the EU now within reach, they could soon have even more reason to break out the champagne. Still, forward motion does not always denote progress.
The EU is being enlarged, but it remains an unaccountable and, in many ways, undemocratic institution. It's also an increasingly unpopular one. Amid wrenching social and economic changes, the rush toward a European super state may well be laying the groundwork for a nasty backlash.
There is, of course, an ongoing debate about just how far integration is supposed to go and what the EU should ultimately become. But those driving the process, principally the French and the Germans, are crystal clear about their aim -- they want to create a federalized Europe -- and are well on their way to achieving it. National governments are slowly being eclipsed, and from the vineyards of the Rhone to the shipyards of Hamburg, it is Brussels that is setting more and more of the rules and taking responsibility for enforcing them. It is estimated that half the laws now on the books in EU countries originated in Brussels. In total, there are more than 2,500 EU regulations currently in effect, covering everything from intellectual property to the proper disposal of refrigerators.
What is striking, and disturbing, is how little of this has been done with the consent of the governed. Any doubt that this has been a process by, for, and about elites was firmly put to rest in December, on the eve of a summit at which EU leaders were to ratify the new constitution. (The meeting ended in failure, but with the defeat of the conservative government in Spain, which opposed the apportionment of voting rights under the proposed constitution, the chief obstacle to ratification has now been removed.) In a paper published by the Fabian Society, Gisela Stuart, a British Labour MP and ardent European who took part in the constitutional convention, offered a blistering indictment of the drafting process and of EU procedures generally:
"The Convention brought together a self-selected group of the European political elite, many of whom have their eyes on a career at a European level, which is dependent on more and more integration and who see national governments and national parliaments as an obstacle. Not once in the 16 months I spent on the Convention did representatives question whether deeper integration is what the people of Europe want."
One might have thought Stuart's much-publicized cri de coeur would have chastened EU mandarins and led them to apply the brakes, but that has not happened; they now hope to have the constitution written in stone by June. And as of tomorrow, another 75 million people will find themselves answering to Brussels. As to the EU's "democracy deficit," the politicians spearheading the move toward greater integration appear to believe they can manufacture legitimacy by fiat, by creating facts on the ground. The attitude seems to be that the more entrenched the EU becomes, the more accepting the man on the street will become. That's a dubious proposition.
On the other hand, it's easy to understand why the public isn't being given greater say in Europe's evolution. Recent opinion polls indicate that public support for the EU has dropped below 50 percent, and in those rare instances when voters have been consulted, they have made their opinions even clearer.
Four years ago, Denmark stunned the rest of Europe by rejecting the euro, and last September, Sweden delivered another shock by following suit. In 2001, Irish voters, despite being among the biggest beneficiaries of EU membership, nixed a plan to transfer more power from Dublin to Brussels and said "no" to eastward expansion of the EU. (Ireland was forced to take a mulligan, and a second vote one year later saw the plan approved.) In the early 1990s, the Maastricht Treaty, which brought the EU into existence, barely survived when put before voters in France and Denmark. All 25 EU members will eventually have to ratify the new constitution, and defeat seems assured in at least a few countries.
The EU doesn't do well at the ballot box, but the far right is faring quite nicely these days. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front can count on roughly 15 percent of the vote in any national election. In Italy, Umberto Bossi's Northern League is a member of the ruling coalition. And far-right parties have made significant inroads in the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, and Germany.
True, these are not your grandfather's fascists -- they've hung the brown shirts in the closet, toned down the incendiary rhetoric, put forth telegenic leaders (Bossi, Jorg Haider), and generally made themselves more presentable. But they still know how to push all the right buttons, and they've got plenty of buttons to push at the moment. Across the eurozone, economic growth is sluggish and unemployment remains chronically high in a number of countries. Large-scale immigration from north Africa and the Middle East has added to the economic insecurity and fueled concerns about social cohesion.
On top of this, political power is being ceded to nameless, faceless Eurocrats in Brussels who seem mostly interested in feathering their own nests. (The EU has been riddled with corruption scandals.) In short, the conditions could not be more fertile for the extreme right, and its leaders are shrewdly exploiting them -- stoking fears about immigration and crime, preaching economic populism, and railing against the EU and its assault on national sovereignty. The EU's eastward expansion, which brings 10 substantially poorer countries into the fold, only adds to the rich menu of grievances. No one is expecting a far-right party to sweep to power anytime soon, but with millions of Europeans looking to the future with a sense of foreboding and a feeling of impotence, it shouldn't be surprising that the "designer fascists" are finding an increasingly receptive audience for their message.
Running for re-election two years ago, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sounded a cautionary note about the speed and scale of European integration. "As Europeans," he said, "we have to be careful, because the tempo of change is so fast that the capacity of citizens to absorb it often doesn't keep pace."
As the EU juggernaut rolls on, Schröder's warning could well turn out to be grimly prophetic.
Michael Steinberger is a Prospect senior correspondent.