Mary Dejevsky: The real reason for Old Europe's revolt

They look across the channel at our poor public services and they say: no, thank you
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The Independent Online

Oh how they are going to enjoy this! From the Atlantic to the Russian border, you can already hear them tuning up for the celebrations: the Europhobes, the Eurosceptics and especially, of course, little England. What with the woes of the German Chancellor and the betting on "No" votes from the French and the Dutch, they sense that their triumph is at hand. Was this not what they had forecast all along? The comprehensive unravelling of the European project, the total inability of Europe to act as one, the failure even to agree a common set of rules to govern procedures.

Oh how they are going to enjoy this! From the Atlantic to the Russian border, you can already hear them tuning up for the celebrations: the Europhobes, the Eurosceptics and especially, of course, little England. What with the woes of the German Chancellor and the betting on "No" votes from the French and the Dutch, they sense that their triumph is at hand. Was this not what they had forecast all along? The comprehensive unravelling of the European project, the total inability of Europe to act as one, the failure even to agree a common set of rules to govern procedures.

Even the lukewarm Europhiles in Whitehall can hardly conceal their smiles. They could not have written a more satisfactory script: a German election with the prospect of a Chancellor whose preferred vision of the Europe resembles that loose linkage of sovereign states Tony Blair says he favours; a newly Euro-sceptic France with a politically crippled President, and - what bliss - no need to call that divisive referendum back home. Come Monday morning and a "No" vote in France, the consensus will be that the European Union must return to the drawing board. It was, the doom-watchers will say through crocodile tears, an idealistic project engineered by a pan-European "elite" which regrettably went too far and too fast for "the people".

Except that this is not at all what this undoubted "high noon" for Europe means at all. The dynamic which led Chancellor Schröder to gamble on an early general election resulted from a catastrophic defeat for his Social Democrat Party (SPD) in Germany's biggest state. That defeat, in turn, was precipitated by many factors: a malaise that set in as a result of the economic cost to the western half of the country from reunification; a decline in national morale reflecting Germany's reduced economic clout within Europe and a flick of dissatisfaction over the government's arrogance in not giving Germans a vote on the European constitution (which would have necessitated an amendment of the German constitution).

Above all, however, the Social Democrats' defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia reflected profound discontent with the cuts introduced by the Schröder government in the name of economic reform. The purpose of the changes - still too timid in the view of many economists in Britain and the US - was to improve Germany's sluggish growth rate and make the country more competitive. The peculiarity of the German vote was that, while the dissatisfaction came from the left, this essentially anti-capitalist, fear-of-globalisation, vote translated into a victory for the centre-right.

The selfsame perversity could lose Mr Schröder the German general election, which is now expected in September. He and his centre-left coalition will be accused of essentially accepting an "Anglo-Saxon", or "American", model of the free-market and global competition, forsaking the "European" social model and so betraying the "ordinary people".

This is the same combination of forces that drives the "No" vote in France and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands. The vast majority of those planning to vote against the European constitution in France are not Eurosceptics in the British mould. Nor are they motivated by disillusionment with the EU and the so-called "European model". Their vote will largely reflect the very opposite: a sense that their leaders have bought into an "American" view of the world that sees growth rates as the single gauge of a country's success, and discounts - or undervalues - such "European" attributes as the social safety net and quality of life.

The centre-right in Germany and the "No" campaigns elsewhere have successfully capitalised on the two strands of dissatisfaction that run deep throughout so-called "old Europe": a feeling that the political establishment no longer represents the people's interests and a fear of globalisation, which merges all too easily with the xenophobic tendencies of the right.

There is a third element, however, which is that for the traditional left in many countries of Europe - Britain included - there is nowhere to go. There are fewer and fewer parties, either in power or in opposition, that represent the social market considerations that made up the "European model". The victory of New Labour eight years ago on a platform much imitated by others since, was just the start.

What is happening now is not the rejection of the European project, but a revolt by a large constituency in "old Europe" against the way the original, idealistic, intentions of that project have been diluted. This revolt is presented in Britain - and it will be again, if France votes "No" - as evidence that what most Europeans really want is the loose, free-market geared alliance preferred by Mr Blair. It is, however, nothing of the sort.

It is a plea to Europe's leaders to halt their infatuation with the "American model" and return to their European roots. The instinct of these voters tells them that Europe is headed in the wrong direction - a direction exemplified by Britain. They look across the Channel at our poor public services, our high-priced housing, our lack of social mobility and the consequences of our US-orientated foreign policy, and they say: no, thank you. They believe that there is much more to Europe than competition for higher growth rates. And who is to say that they are wrong?

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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