- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

The European Union isn’t finished, and, unfortunately, we haven’t quite seen the last of Jacques Chirac — though politically he is a dead man talking.

However, with France’s rejection of the EU constitution, the domestic and international political utility of Mr. Chirac’s slimy, shallow anti-American shtick enters history’s dust bin.

Nope, it wasn’t a wild cowboy’s bullet, or unilateralism by the U.S. hyperpower: A disgruntled French electorate dealt the grand European project a staggering body blow.

“Old Europeans” — by which I mean France and Germany’s decadent and sclerotic leaders, Mr. Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder — have used the Anti-Cowboy Card to mask their own social and political failures. High unemployment? Blame those American cowboys. Problems with Muslim immigrants? Call George W. Bush “Hitler” and sneer. Troubles with labor unions, pension payments and potholes? Don’t address the specifics: Instead, give pompous speeches about the grand and glorious Near Future, when United Europe supplants the United States and we’ll show those cowboys who is sophisticated.

The fire lit by the French electorate has severely charred the Anti-Cowboy Card. Now it’s time for a new generation of European leaders to quit the card game and pick up a mirror. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has called for a “period of reflection” after the vote.

Fear of including Turkey motivated French “no” voters. Parse that and a Jack Straw reflector will find fear of Islam, racism, and cheap Turkish imports. The French nanny-state is tottering — another raison d’etre behind “no.” The mirror suggests a profound French identity crisis.

There certainly is no pan-European identity to save the French psyche. In some ways, the news that the Cold War really is over has finally reached Paris. Granted — the EU founders had reason to be wary of rabid nationalism, given the 20th century slaughters of two world wars, but the EU was as much a creature of Cold War collective threat as it was a child of economic rationalism. The Soviet threat has morphed into waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Yet, the European economic “super market” makes basic sense. Free trade makes sense, particularly when your neighborhood is one of Earth’s nicest pieces of real estate — well-heeled, well-educated, and intellectually creative Western Europe.

But political unification, beyond a loose confederation of democratic states? That pitch was always suspect, something of a Franco-German canard. So what now?

The left-wing Guardian newspaper in Britain, in an unusually sober article, wrote: “There is an obvious tension between the formal [EU leadership] position and what makes political sense. Formally, the ratification should go on, and may well do so. But politically, many argue, it is pointless.”

For years the French elites have said “There is no Plan B” — meaning there is no fallback position to a Euro superstate. But there is a Plan B, and that’s the Common Market — independent nations sharing a common currency and benefiting from free trade.

I see a potential Plan C. Several years ago Conrad Black suggested Great Britain join NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement. He thought Britain’s liberal economic tradition was a better fit with the U.S. and Canada than with French and German statist economies. (Mr. Black wasn’t the first to suggest this, but he did so with more public splash than earlier advocates.)

The Dutch have an Anglophilic streak and a pro-U.S. bent. Free-market and (comparatively) low-tax Ireland — the Celtic Tiger — is filled with Euro-sceptics. Ireland’s deputy Prime Minister, Mary Harney, once quipped that in economic matters the Irish could feel “closer to Boston than Berlin.” (The United States invests heavily in Irish hi-tech industries.)

So, let’s offer NAFTA membership to the Netherlands, Ireland and the United Kingdom. If you’re Dutch, Irish or British, why be stuck in the crisis-ridden fraud of a Francocentric now Franco-fractured Greater Europe?

We’ll call it the North Atlantic Free Trade Association. Heck, we won’t even have to change the acronym.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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