The conundrum of EU constitution and Teutonic stoicism

THERE is an air of suspense in Europe. No, there is no war in the offing or a threat of sanctions from Washington. It’s about the fate of the European constitution that faces a growing likelihood of a "no" vote in the French referendum today (May 29).

By M. N. Hebbar

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Published: Sun 29 May 2005, 10:39 AM

Last updated: Wed 8 Nov 2023, 9:26 AM

Why are we concerned about the French vote when the German parliament only recently gave it a green signal despite misgivings in certain political quarters? It’s because the French referendum could transform the political and economic prospects for the whole of Europe, including Germany.

A "no" vote in France would be perceived as a catastrophic setback for the European Union because the politicians see a "no" vote as a disaster for the "European project", raising the risk of the EU fragmenting into separate blocks and deepening internal dissensions. A former EU president has already termed such a result as "the end of Europe". It would be seen as an attempt by France to protect itself from the incursions of Anglo-Saxon liberalism and an indication to the rest of Europe that the failure of the constitution is a tragic step back to the dark days of nationalism and protectionism.

But a little consideration will reveal that the opposite may be more plausible or desirable. The consequence of a "no" vote may well lead to acceleration of both economic and political liberalisation in France, Germany and across Europe. Realistically, it could be a wake-up call for the politicians and officials who have so far mismanaged their respective economies since the mid-1990s as the evidence would suggest.

Take Germany and France for instance. While they occupied a stellar position among the world’s most prosperous and technologically advanced countries earlier, they have presently fallen so far behind that they see their jobs and leading industries threatened with near-extinction by the likes of South Korea, Taiwan and even China. Low-cost East European economies are only queering the pitch further. It is obvious that without speedier economic growth, liberal market reforms are almost impossible to implement in societies such as those of continental Europe. And speedier growth may well be the consequence of a French "no".

Germany is running its fifth year of stagnation amidst concerns that the workings of a market economy are becoming increasingly suspect. Recent evidence of unscrupulous speculators in the financial sector hijacking the fruits of capitalistic endeavours at the cost of the economy only fuel the debate. In a telling comment on the perception of the market economy in Germany’s parliamentary democracy, Nobel laureate Guenter Grass last week characterised the Bundestag (parliament) as a subsidiary of the stock exchange.

Furthermore, a "no" vote may be such a shock to Europe’s governments that the European Central Bank may well be prodded to recognise that the only alternative to lower interest rates and a weaker euro will be the complete collapse of the single-currency as we know it, prompting national governments to cut taxes, rather than increase government spending and tightening protectionist regulations.

Finally, a French "no" would not only just about end Europe’s rather premature venture into single statehood but, importantly, debunk the idea that Europe was somehow exempt from the laws of capitalist economics that apply in the rest of the world, simply because it had adopted a model of social welfare as well. It will force the people of Europe and their governments to accept that their living standards, cultures and influence in the world can be sustained only by improving economic growth, not by the illusion of a new constitution, integration or enlargement. Social choices need the support of a growing economy.

Teutonic stoicism

Germany has no equals when it comes to a continual exercise of coming to terms with its infamous past, seeking to exorcise the ghost that does not ever seem to want to leave. Although the Germans have been taught to believe that its democratic credentials have more than erased its sullied past, and that collective guilt is a myth, its renewed examination of conscience early in the month to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the second World War was another reminder of a poignant touch to its history.

In another visible monument to the acknowledgment of Germany’s guilt in its persecution of Jews, Berlin last week saw the official opening of Germany’s first national Holocaust memorial to the six million who perished at the hands of the Nazis. The monument, designed by New York architect Peter Eisenmann and entailing some $40 million in costs, summed up Germany’s guilt for its war crimes in physical terms. Germany has already paid billions of euros in reparations to the survivors of the dead through these crimes. The monument’s location is significant.

Situated in the heart of Berlin, and symbolically placed over the site where Hitler’s bunker lay, thus sealing them shut forever, it comprises 2,711 grey pillars of concrete of differing heights, which from afar resemble a field of undulating gravestones. In effect, it looks a disorienting maze.

The presence of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, dignitaries, Jewish leaders and some 1000 guests — including some Holocaust survivors — lent a sombre and poignant touch to the ceremony, which was notable for a moving speech by a survivor, who had lost her entire family in the pogrom.

Germans pose questions that other nations seldom pose. National pride does not hinder the cathartic process. The burden of the Third Reich has left generations that followed tinged with its guilt although innocent of the taint. This was the same sense of guilt that prevented Germans from celebrating a German pope, Joseph Ratzinger. Call it a Teutonic sense of the politically correct, if you will, but the truth is that Germany is still unflinchingly confronting its Nazi past.

M N Hebbar is a commentator based in Berlin

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