The cracks in Europe’s expanding empire

By Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexander Lebedev

Financial Times

Published: July 26 2005

The rejection of the European Union’s proposed constitution in France and the Netherlands has shocked the European elite, who seemed to take for granted popular support for building a common European house. Although warnings that ratification could run into problems had been plentiful even before the constitution was signed, the would-be founding fathers brushed off the sceptics. Europe’s well-oiled bureaucracy still cannot believe that a systemic failure has occurred, one that could jeopardise the very basis of its existence.

Subsequent developments, including the refusal of Britain and others to proceed with the ratification process and the show of disunity at last month’s EU summit, not just on the constitution but also on the crucial budget and finance issues, suggest that the European project is facing a ­profound crisis. What has happened is not yet a catastrophe, but could mark the beginning of one unless an in-depth analysis is undertaken and lessons are learnt.

The crisis cannot be explained purely in terms of the politics of two, three or five of the 25 EU member states. Interpreting the defeat of the Yes campaigns as a show of popular distrust for the governments of France and Holland, or as a product of the low standing of Jacques Chirac, the French president, and Jan Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, in opinion polls, is wishful thinking. Nor can the votes be explained as an expression of disagreement with new restrictions on national sovereignty. The real reason is different.

In our view the main reason is that the EU’s rapid enlargement has created an unwieldy system. Nevertheless, European commissioners persist in starry-eyed talk about enlargement at any price. western Europe’s expansion, which has absorbed eastern Europe and, with the opening of accession talks with Turkey almost crossed the Bosporus into Asia, has caused widespread anger among the citizens of the “Old World”. This is understandable: for the European man in the street, it has meant the influx of cheap labour from and the flight of industries to the east.

The ideologues of the new Europe will now have to think hard whether continued chaotic expansion into the east could bring about the collapse of the European house itself, at least in its current form. For what is France if not the cornerstone of that house?

A Frenchman interviewed on the street by EuroNews asked a very good question: what would happen if referendums were held in those countries that have already ratified the constitution by votes of parliament? After all, both in France and in the Netherlands most of the “representatives of the people” – from both the ruling parties and the opposition – favoured ratification. The opposition in Germany has already started questioning the parliament’s decision to ratify the constitution, and the issue could become contentious in the run-up to elections in September.

It is clear that Europe’s political elites have only themselves to blame for what has happened. The referendums revealed a chasm that divides EU elites and the people of EU countries. It now appears that the framers of the constitution had not envisaged any mechanism in case the ratification process went off course. In other words, they had decided everything beforehand, dismissing any thought that the people they claim to represent could disagree with them. The sad result is that the document born with so much pain and signed with so much pomp was thrown into question in just a few days.

The EU crisis could destabilise political systems in Europe. After all, democracy – government reflecting the will of the people – is the main value of the European order. The attempt by elites to exclude the people from the decision-making process could lead to the rejection of those very elites by society. In the worst-case scenario, forces that have until recently been marginalised could return to the centre of political life. It is notable that the almost forgotten “Internationale” became the victory song of some of the constitution’s opponents in France.

Under this same scenario, the Baltic republics and Russia’s former Comecon partners in eastern Europe, who were looking forward to a life of plenty under the blue skies and yellow stars, could face severe problems. Expecting generous handouts, they had refurbished their houses to European standards, in the process gutting much of their industrial capacity beyond repair. But whether “old Europe” will be willing to continue doling out money to the new arrivals is now in question. The fact that, during the recent summit’s heated debate on budget issues, many of the EU’s established members supported London’s unwillingness to subsidise lossmaking agricultural ­production does not bode well for the newcomers.

Another aspect of the defeat of ­Brussels’ bureaucracy concerns membership aspirations of countries to the east of EU’s current borders – Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – and of the Belarussian opposition. What is needed now is a serious change of direction on both the strategy and ­tactics of building a united Europe, ­particularly the pace of the unification process.

Worth recalling in this regard is the need to build a united Europe not only from the west but also from the east. This highlights the importance of creating a common economic space embracing Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan – a process that could bring huge benefits to those four countries and also to the EU. Interaction between these two systems is key to a united greater Europe.

Finally, recent developments should give much food for thought about ­Russia’s relationship with, and attitudes towards, the EU. Many in Russia have openly gloated over the EU’s recent troubles. Much of their commentary could be summarised as: “Put your own house in order before lecturing us.” True, as far as democracy is concerned, Russians are tired of being Europe’s whipping boys. But, instead of gleefully rubbing our hands, we should see what lessons we can learn for ourselves.
 Mikhail Gorbachev was the president of the Soviet Union. Alexander Lebedev is a member of the State Duma and head of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Integration Research Centre.