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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis

Oui ou Non – France decides the future of the EU

Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005

May 29, 2005

Obernai, Alsace, France – In 1945, when I was two, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI agents arrested my dear nanny, Mademoiselle Chapuiseau, as a German spy and took her away to prison. I never saw her again.

Mlle Chapuiseau was a Frenchwoman from Alsace. The FBI blockheads who arrested her reasoned: Alsace had been under German control. She was Alsatian and in the USA. Ergo, she was a Nazi spy. Nothing much has changed. Today, US agents, fuelled by the same ignorance and nationalist hysteria, arrest thousands of Muslims for no better reason that they own a Koran.

Alsace and Lorraine, two of Europe’s most beautiful regions, changed hands between France and Germany four times from 1871-1945. Brothers ended up fighting in opposing armies.

Nationalism is one of mankind’s greatest evils. Six million soldiers died in three wars along the French-German border. Now, these two old enemies have become brother nations. Alsace has again been invaded, but this time by happy German tourists with fistfuls of Euros; it proudly proclaims itself a province of united Europe.

But will the European Union ever become truly united, or remain a collection of 25 distinct nations? Today, France holds a national referendum on the new proposed European Constitution. Hardly anyone understands what it’s about: the document runs to 200 pages and 448 articles covering everything from budget issues to public services and commerce. Spain, Italy and six other EU members have already voted yes.

Unfortunately, in France, and other nations still to vote, opinion is being driven by emotional, political and economic issues that are often unrelated to the articles under consideration.

In France, the very heart of Europe, public opinion has been 53% against. If France votes no, the entire EU integration process will collapse in recriminations and may suffer a severe, even fatal blow.

France’s far right and far left hate the idea of European integration. The almighty unions here bitterly oppose the vote fearing it will usher in `Anglo-Saxon’ economic practices: sharper competition, flexible labor markets, reduced government intervention and an end to France’s lavish but unaffordable social services. France’s truculent farmers fear their absurd subsidies will be cut.

France and Germany, in particular, are afflicted by chronic double-digit unemployment and stagnant economies caused by too high taxes, inability to fire workers, oppressive regulation and state-sponsored laziness typified by six week paid vacations, innumerable holidays, short working hours and ludicrously early retirement. Pension payments have run amok. Investment has plummeted. Unions fear a yes vote will derail their gravy train.

French voters are fed up with their self-serving politicians who never seem to change and furious at the Chirac government that is being forced by economic necessity to impose cuts in social spending.

French fear being swamped by East European workers who will take scarce jobs and drive down salaries. The prospect of Muslim Turkey joining the EU horrifies nationalists, farm unions and religious bigots.

Equally important, many French worry their nation’s preeminence and unique character will be diluted in an EU of 25 or more nations. Europe’s economic and political balance is already shifting east to Central and Eastern Europe, whose nations are far more attuned to free enterprise and lower taxes than `Old Europe.’ Today, France and Germany still form the core of the EU and dominate it. After more integration, they may no longer enjoy such primacy and influence.

But France can no longer afford its superb quality of life. The old German saying, `as happy as God in France,’ may no longer hold true.

Very few French want to make any changes, and who can blame them?

But rejection of this major step towards a truly unified Europe would be a disaster for its future in a world of ferocious trading blocs, and delay or wreck the opportunity to build the EU into a counter-balance to America’s increasingly assertive hegemony.

So today’s vote, no matter how incomprehensible, is critically important. Hopefully, French voters will manage to see beyond their narrow, selfish interests and cushy lifestyles. But that’s asking a lot in the land of the two hour lunch and 35-hour work week.

Published at Bigeye.com since 1995 with permission, as a courtesy and in appreciation.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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