21 June 2004
Geneva - The last time I stayed at Geneva's storied Hotel du Rhone, the summer of 1958, a room, with breakfast, cost 20 Swiss francs, then US $4.80. An African nationalist leader was assassinated in the chic lobby bar by French intelligence agents, or `barbouzes,' who had laced his champagne with cyanide; and I got a big wet kiss on the cheek and a bear hug from Egypt's rotund King Farouk.
Geneva is quieter these days. The world has passed it by. One feels in a total time warp. My old high school, the Ecole Internationale de Geneve, remains a bastion of civilized internationalism in our era of manic nationalism and religious crusading. The city core is largely unchanged. Even a ghastly old night club I went to when I turned 16, complete with a juggler, acrobat, and exotic danseuse, has reopened.
The Swiss like things this way. Having refused to join the EU, they are content to watch the storms and passions of the outside world pass them by. The only thing that changes here are the prices up, never down.
The good citizens of Geneva have been observing with interest and some scorn recent elections to the toothless European parliament, and efforts by the EU's 25 leaders to forge a new constitution.
For many years, the world's most boring political spectacle was the endless wrangling between Canada's provinces and federal government. But this title now goes to the European Union, a bureaucratic monstrosity so complex and impenetrable that even its well-tailored legions of overpaid, do-nothing bureaucrats don't understand how it works or what they are supposed to be doing besides preparing economic reports in 20 languages that no one reads .
Last week's elections produced a dismal voter turnout and severe punishment for governments that either backed President George Bush's jihad in Iraq, or those that tried to trim ruinously expensive pension programs the nemesis of all of Europe's welfare governments.
Only anti-EU fringe parties did well. Most shocking, voter turnout in the EU's former communist states was abysmal: 20% in Poland; 17% in Slovakia. So much for the `liberated' East thirsting for democracy.
It used to be said money was the Achilles Heel of democracies; but today, voter apathy has become a greater menace. Only half of Americans bother to vote in presidential polls; far less in congressional and state races. Even here in Switzerland, the world's oldest and purest democracy, where all major issues are determined by referendum, voter turnout has plummeted to 25%.
Voter fatigue across the EU and the complexity of ballot issues, are in part to blame, but it's also clear that western Europeans, besides producing too few babies to restock their nations, are just too lazy, indifferent or brained-numbed from TV to bother voting. Unless voting is made possible via TV sets or the internet, voter indifference threatens to open the way to government by unelected bureaucrats or even dictatorial regimes.
Europeans are also vexed by massive political confusion. No one is sure who is in charge of what. National governments are battling with EU bureaucracies, regulations are in flux, and there is massive overlapping of regulatory functions as the supra-national EU regime is imposed on formerly independent states. On top of all this, people are still trying to figure out the difference between Slovaks and Slovenes, where exactly Vilnius is located, and how to translate the Swedish word for raw herring into Maltese.
Difficult as things are for the EU, Britain is doing its very best to make them worse. Tony Blair has imposed so many restrictive conditions to British EU membership, and so many demands for veto power, the UK is barely part of a united Europe.
This past weekend, weary leaders representing 430 million voters, finally hammered out an agreement for an EU constitution that pleased no one and left the union still pretty loosey goosey. This pact must now be approved by referendums in the EU member states, and already a great hue and cry of protest is being raised. Most Europeans desire the EU, but only on their own terms, and provided their oxen do not get gored.
The British want it both ways: all the commercial benefits of EU membership while serving US interests, and keeping their currency, tax and labor laws, foreign policy, and the right to make the world's greasiest sausages. Britain's `Daily Mail' just sneered that the real US Ambassador to Britain is Tony Blair.
The French, and other angry Europeans, accuse the Brits of being a Trojan Horse for the Americans and grumble about kicking out `perfidious Albion.'
So far, it's Euro-chaos on a grand scale. Rome was not built in a day and neither will be Brussels. Give Europe ten more years to sort out the mess and figure out such life and death issues as how many pickles go into a regulation Euro jar.