Monday, June 24, 2024

Like them or not, "far-right" proposals such as limiting asylum rights open up the EU to democratic debate

In European Parliament elections this month, voters in most of the European Union’s 27 countries rallied to parties that hold the union in contempt.

In the New York Times,  of “The Age of Entitlement” (America Since the Sixties) fame has penned a guest essay, The E.U. Is Revealing Its True Identity. Europeans Don’t Like It. (Thanks for the Instalink, Sarah.)

Analysts have leaped to the conclusion that the European Union must have done something wrong.

It didn’t. The specific policy grievances that drove the election results were national, not continental. In France, where the once-taboo National Rally party outpolled the party of President Emmanuel Macron by more than two to 1, voters were angry about the president’s immigration policy and the snootiness with which he formulated it. In Germany, where a hard-right party anchored in the formerly Communist East got more votes than any of the three governing parties, voters cited highhanded energy policies.

Such local complaints, to be sure, occasionally echo frustrations with corresponding E.U. policies on immigration and energy. But the European Union’s governing machinery in Brussels is never where voters’ hearts and hopes are. Indeed, that is the real problem with the union: not what it does but what it is.

One way to look at the E.U. project, in fact, was as a codification of the values that had won the Cold War. That values win wars is a bold assertion, but back then, the West was in a self-confident mood. The prime minister of Luxembourg (and later, European Commission president) Jean-Claude Juncker was soon crediting European integration with having brought “50 years of peace,” even though the European Union had not yet been founded when the Berlin Wall fell. A more sober analysis would credit that peace to American occupation, NATO vigilance and Russian caution.

From the outset, the union was the expression of a love-hate relationship with the United States. On the one hand, it was emulative. Europe was to be, like America, a promise, a dream, a multiethnic experiment based on rights and principles, not blood and soil. It was a constitution-making project. On state visits to Washington in the late 1990s, Germany’s foreign minister Joschka Fischer would stroll around a Borders bookstore looking for books on the American founding.

On the other hand, the European Union was rivalrous with America. It meant to consolidate the continent’s nations into a military-economic bloc of almost half a billion people, partly so Europeans would no longer need to dance to the tune of the American empire.

 … There was only one way to get the power required to build a European superpower: by usurping the prerogatives of the continent’s existing nation-states. Tasks delegated to Brussels were considered to have been delegated to it permanently. 

 … An Orwellian vocabulary emerged. European Union leaders, widely viewed as politicians who had failed on their own national scenes, referred to themselves as “Europe,” and to anyone who opposed their state-building schemes as “anti-European.” Soon “anti-European” joined the list of intolerances that were grounds for ostracism and censure. You would hear politicians described as “racist, xenophobic and anti-European,” as if those were character failings of equal gravity.

 … The union’s rise brought a wave of public browbeating about the lessons of the Cold War, even though the 1968 generation had been profoundly divided over it, and about World War II, which that generation was too young to remember. It was as if Nazism and Soviet Communism were just two ways of being anti-European avant la lettre. As long as the baby boomers still had parents and grandparents to tell them about the horrors of World War II, this was sufficient to freeze opposition to the European Union in its tracks.

 … Europe’s preoccupations are closer to the 18th-century world of bread riots than to the 20th-century one of Save the Whales.

Hard-line parties like the National Rally and Alternative for Germany, with their proposals to limit asylum rights, to stop favoring electric cars over burners and to claw back retirement benefits, cater to this reality. Like them or not, such proposals open up the situation to democratic debate. The European Union’s role is often to close off such debate, citing refugee-treaty obligations that migrants be prioritized or budget-deficit ceilings requiring that welfare benefits be kept lean. These propositions are sometimes sensible, but publics are less inclined to listen to them than they were in the boom years of the 1990s.

 … Europeans are mostly not aware that they have been enlisted in a project that has as its end point the extinction of France, Germany, Italy and the rest of Europe’s historic nations as meaningful political units. Brussels has been able to win assent to its project only by concealing its nature.

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