European Union

William Urban

We were in Prague the day of the elections to the European parliament. Yawn. That was the reaction of the population of every state. Record lows in voter turn-out.

It remains to say whether the voters were smart or not. The parliament exercises very little power. Yet. Real authority lies in the bureaucratic mechanisms that declare new rules and guidelines for every aspect of daily life. Britons more than anyone recognize this, and they are pulling back. Perhaps this is just the habit of ‘being different’ that Britons honor so highly, but it is surely also a recognition that the process involves a genuine surrender of sovereignty. Being a European means abandoning a certain amount of Frenchness, Germanness, even perhaps someday Turkishness.

Everywhere the Socialists lost, and commentators are trying to figure out why. Most blame the Socialist governments for their inability to deliver on their promises, but since the European Union, somewhat like the American system, makes it difficult for individual states to indulge in deficit spending, they simply cannot pay for the social measures already in place. The Greens won big. Though they are still a marginal party in most countries, they have evolved from ideologues to practical politicians, and their base can be counted on to vote. So, the lower the average turn-out, the better the Greens and the Communists do.

The almost simultaneous agreement on a European constitution is something to watch. Very soon the European parliament will have real power. What this means is clear to nobody, but each party is trying to establish ties with like-minded parties across the continent. The Greens have found this easiest to do, since they come together periodically to demonstrate against globalization, genetically modified foods, war in general and specifically wherever the United States is involved, and against nuclear energy unless the French produce it.

For Europeans on the continent the most fundamental change has already come in the form of a common currency. The Euro has made travel and commerce easier, but it has also leveled out wages and prices. We saw it a year ago in Germany, with restaurant prices making a sudden jump, from, say, DM 5 to E 5. We saw it this year in Prague, which is preparing for conversion to the Euro. Prices have gone up in the tourist district. But since the meals and hotels are still a bargain, everybody pays.

Accompanying the rise in prices, fortunately, are improvements in service. My hotel breakfasts in Paris, Berlin and Prague were significantly better than last year, and the accommodations, too. We had grown used to what one might call indoor camping, so this year’s trip would have seemed like a royal tour if someone else had been right there to carry the backpacks. This is not a scientific sample, but everything else makes me believe it is a good indication of the general direction of the economy.

The stores are better stocked. Alas, everything is made in China. The number of Chinese restaurants is up, too, it seems. In London it’s hard to get an English meal, other than fish and chips. In Berlin German food has not been seen for years. Even in Paris, Turkish fast food places are everywhere. As is McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King. We’ve tried each. Sometimes we’re in a hurry, and sometimes we recognize what we get. Moreover, in spite of occasional arguments that ‘we’ are ‘forcing’ people to eat there, it seemed to me that everyone was entering voluntarily.

Pickpockets are ubiquitous. Most don’t make much effort to hide what they are doing. When we were at the palace a garbage collector emptied a trash can and saw a wallet on top. At least one poor slob might get his ID cards back. And it could happen to anyone.

So, what will the European parliament do about all of this? Nobody really knows. Most likely, little or nothing. Europe will be unified by experts who are selected by their department heads and confirmed by the European parliament. This suggests that the role of parties will become important. If one international party comes to dominate and wants, say, higher quality hotels, it might be able to force that on all member states, no matter that individual states may think that medical care or environmental matters have higher priority. What no state can do, no matter what its problems, is spend more than its revenues permit.

What will prevent today’s yawn from becoming tomorrow’s cry of horror? Most likely the realization that no one state dominates, and no one party seems likely to be able to push its agenda too far. Germany is overwhelmed by the number of new members, and the United States, having helped bring this all about, is definitely on the outside. But also because prosperity brings boredom, and prosperity, as Coolidge and Hoover assured us, is here to stay.

The Monmouth Daily Review Atlas July 2, 2004