The so-called European Project, the name given to the European Union’s attempts to bring its member states closer together, has stalled. British voters, fed up with the idea, gave the anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) a third-place showing in recent elections for the pan-European parliament. Third place is admittedly not first, but Britain’s two main political parties saw their total vote collapse below the 50 percent mark for the first time, as “marginal” parties, spearheaded by UKIP, took nearly 52 percent of the vote.
The result was mimicked across Europe, and UKIP’s sister parties in France, Germany, Belgium and Eastern Europe gained heavily.
It was an astounding victory for the euroskeptic cause, as but a year ago, high-class intellectuals and most of the press universally dismissed UKIP, and euroskeptic parties in general, as “full of gadflies and cranks.” They were too extreme to be taken seriously.
Alas, now they have to be. The European parliament has been transformed. It now consists of three main factions: the dominant, pro-American and moderately skeptical center-right; the divided and very anti-American center-left; and theobstructionisteuroskeptic parties.
Europeans have — in other words — voted for, and are perfectly fine with, the status quo. They do not want to create a single European nation and, by consequence, do not want to build a counter-pole to American power.
What they want is to thwart the pressures of an increasinglyglobalized world that threatens to take theirover-regulated economies into the abyss.
France’s most popular politician, Nicholas Sarkozy, best epitomizes this mood. Mr. Sarkozy has been climbing the greasy pole of French politics for the last few years, with a stint as minister of the interior and now as finance minister. His popularity comes from his image as a “politically uncorrect” politician, who is willing to use state power to preserve la France.
Mr. Sarkozy was at the forefront of the movement to ban Islamic headscarves in schools and has now begun an ambitious program to sell off government-owned companies, the proceeds of which will be used to prop up social projects that have suffered because of the moribund French economy.
Indeed, Sarkozyian politicians can be found across Europe. They are extremely popular, eager to keep “Europe, Europe,” enthusiastically brandishing their pro-American credentials. The Christian Democrats in Germany have both opposed ChancellorGerhard Schroeder’s drastic economic reforms and have managed to turn Mr. Schroeder’s anti-American leanings into political advantage. They have been thrashing Mr. Schroeder’s party in recent regional elections. Mr. Sarkozy himself has professed admiration for America’s equalitarian political system, where an Austrian immigrant “with a hard name” can become a governor, and a child of Jamaican immigrants a secretary of state.
Other euroskeptic, pro-American politicians include the newly appointed president of the European Commission, Jose Barroso. Mr. Barroso favors a more decentralized European Union and was Portugal’s prime minister during the Iraq war. (He supported the war and President Bush.) He succeeds Romano Prodi, the flamboyant, left-leaning Italian with a penchant for encouraging anti-American sentiment. Mr. Barroso’s ascension is another sign still that Europe anxiously wants to restore trans-Atlantic relations to the cooler temperatures of the 1990s and bury the dream of a superstate.
Europeans are on the whole satisfied. They do not want to see their generous unemployment benefits, subsidized public theater and health care ended. They do not wish to give up control over their national affairs to an untested bureaucracy in Brussels. And they increasingly view politicians who like to hark about “evil” America as radicals, dangerously willing to continue to trot down that path of antagonizing America. Politicians, like Nicholas Sarkozy, are seizing this public spirit and riding it to power. The rise of euroskepticism, coupled with more and more Sarkozys, could just mean that in the next few years, France and Germany, the high citadels of multilateralism, become supine allies.
It seems far-fetched, but the way attitudes are moving, it is increasingly possible.
Thomas Cheplick is researching France’s Deuxieme Bureau.