- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 9 (UPI) — The current disputes between France and the United States have given rise to a new parlor game: Bashing the European Union.

It is a strange game, since the actually issue is the United States against France, not against the 15-nation European Union where France, Germany and Belgium comprise a small minority on the Iraq issue as the majority supports the United States.

But argumentative subcultures have a logic of their own. France pretends to speak in the name of the EU and that is good enough for those who hate the union.

Confusing France with the EU is only the opening move. The bashers quickly get in much deeper.

We are told the EU is spinning out endless regulations. Readers are left with the impression that the EU is constantly creating new regulations ex nihilo. Yet the reality is that EU regulations mostly serve de-regulatory purposes.

They are not new forms of regulation, but harmonizations or pre-emptions of national regulations, with the result of cutting down the number of regulations to 1/15 of the former total. This way companies can plan across borders and look up a single EU-wide standard, instead of having to contort themselves to fit into 15 separate national regulations on the same subject.

In the real world this is known as expanding the range of economic freedom and cutting back on the regulatory barriers.

This is pretty widely understood, outside of the subculture of EU-bashers. I, myself, after reading about it for many years, happened to run into it first hand. My wife is Italian, and her father worked most of his life in the leather products industry, making fine quality stylish Italian shoes. Now, as an elder statesman of the local industry, he spends much of his time on EU committees that serve to harmonize the national standards for shoe making. It's a good pro-free market effort that he's making, and he knows it: he is a believer in the market and would have nothing to do with socialists.

Despite these realities, there are frequent attacks on what is called, without a shred of accuracy, "EU socialism." Or — a bit less absurdly, but usually said as if it meant the same thing — "EU statism." These bogeymen have become standard fare in the basher subculture.

Attacks like this are not genuine free-market advocacy. They look suspiciously like nationalist populism in free market disguise. Classical free market advocates have mostly supported the EU as something that has broken down nationalist protectionism and established a wider and more successful free market.

The late Friedrich Hayek and Lionel Robbins advocated a full-fledged European federation for this purpose, and a trans-Atlantic federation as well. Robbins wrote that classical liberalism was always based on supporting the development of an effective central government, to overcome the oppression by local power and its feudalistic restrictions on trade.

Or, as Miller Upton, an American libertarian, put it, "More is Less" when it comes to creating a new federal structure of government to take over some functions that need to be done in common; it is a matter of comparative advantage in government operations.

The EU does its work within the existing social consensus; if it didn't, it would not be able to do anything at all. Independent libertarians can do more, at least rhetorically; they can go on to advocate an even further roll-back of the state. From this standpoint, they can criticize the EU for not destroying the middle-of-the-road consensus on market regulation but only moderating its consequences.

The talk of "EU socialism" has nothing in common with this measured libertarian attitude. It does, however, have some unfortunate things in common with the language of the militia movement. There it is standard fare to brand any Federal government functions as "socialist", and any foreigners as "socialists". That makes it easy to argue that our freedom is at risk from the federal government and foreigners.

Nowadays ethnic name-calling is out of fashion, so it's done by the indirect device of saying "they're corrupt, they're statist, they're socialist … and we shouldn't get mixed up with them, we're already losing our freedom because of our elites are mixed up with them." Reading between the lines, "socialism" turns out to have become a code word for saying "they're fundamentally alien to us, we should get away from them." In the case of the EU, it also means that "they're some new-fangled cosmopolitan union, and the communists and socialists were big on cosmopolitanism and unions too, so it sure sound like socialism to me."

Interestingly, the U.S. Constitution was a new-fangled cosmopolitan union, too. And it too was "corrupt" and "tyrannical" and foreigner-inspired — in the eyes of its anti-Federalist critics. They didn't call it "socialist" only because the term was unknown at that time.

In one of the weirdest cases of EU bashing, we read that, as a step toward decentralization, the EU central government should agree to take only a 30-percent share of "governing powers", which is supposedly what is done by the good Swiss to keep their central federal government small.

One wonders, can't these people add? The EU's present share of government funds and powers in Europe is in the one to two percent range. It is the most "centralistic" European federalists who propose it ought to go up to 20-30 percent, like any real federal government.

Reading the EU-bashers is like reading about Americans bashing foreign aid. In poll after poll, big majorities of Americans say we should cut foreign aid down to five percent of the federal budget. They think it is about 20 percent now. It is actually about 1 percent. It makes one sad for one's own countrymen, to see that they've been so grossly duped by the foreigner-bashers in their own media and political class.

In reality, "cutting" foreign aid to five percent of the budget might be a good solution for some of America's most urgent foreign policy problems. It would be a useful supplement to military methods, and a lot cheaper than relying on war alone. And "cutting" the EU to 30 percent of Europe's government powers and funding might be a good solution for many of Europe's problems.

To get to a serious discussion of solutions like these, we'll have to put aside the bashing mentality in all its guises.

(Ira Straus is U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.)




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