TOPICS : EU awaits new leadership

William Keegan

Europe is down but not out but the people who are on their way out are the leaders whose lack of leadership brought us the farce of the French referendum. Seldom have I known a time when close observers of the scene — from within and without — are so certain that the end is nigh for the leaders of the ‘Big Three’ countries of the European Union. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany is generally seen to be a busted flush; President Jacques Chirac of France has Nicolas Sarkozy breathing down his neck while he is still wiping the egg from his face; and Tony Blair has already announced that he is leaving. And if the focus on the EU pans back just a little the lens would also take in ‘Big Leader’ number four, Silvio Berlusconi’s time as the political version of Houdini is now well drawing to an end. But was the French referendum result the end of civilisation as we know it? No. Perhaps there is something in the argument that mainland Europe is weighed down by what economists call ‘structural rigidities’.

Nevertheless British phlegm and flexibility won a consolation prize, and we managed to gain a distant view of Herculaneum - a view which sent us the message that Europe will somehow survive. At one level the referendum result was a verdict on European economic policy: most of the cited concerns related, one way or another, to unemployment. This was the link between criticism of Chirac, who had promised to bring unemployment down; worries about

‘cheap labour’ competition from eastern Europe, Turkey and the rest of the so-called

‘globalised world’; and all the criticism of ‘Anglo Saxon economics’. But at another level the result undoubtedly reflected dissatisfaction with the way ‘Europe’ has been run by an elite that has lost touch with the electorate. It was a gigantic thumbs down to Brussels.

Yet in the modern world, Europe simply has to get its act together. Notwithstanding the embarrassment and obvious frustration of the current generation of leaders, it is inconceivable that Germany and France really wish to turn their backs on the process which has been evolving now for fifty years. There are so many areas - transport, the environment, security and foreign policy, economic policy - where the members of the European Union simply have to cooperate and coordinate policy that there can be no question of the European Union going into reverse. Even speculation about the end of the Eurozone is far fetched, although something must certainly be done to produce a less antediluvian and pre-Keynesian economic policy. Things look bad at the moment, but Europe has seen crises before. That wise statesman, former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd made the point last week that the present lot of leaders will have to stagger on pragmatically as best they can, while they head for the exit. The European idea will have to be rescued and reconstituted by the next batch of leaders. —The Guardia