Europe's Tide of Resentment

The angry mood among voters could threaten moves toward European unity

JUST four months after signing accords designed to usher in a new era of European economic integration and political union, the major countries of the European Community find themselves bobbing in an angry sea of anti-establishment reaction and nationalist introspection that risks drowning plans for a unified Europe.

Union accords signed by EC leaders in Maastricht, Netherlands, in December are still expected to be ratified by all 12 Community members this year. Yet observers say Europe has entered a period where political and economic uncertainties in many EC countries will slow the implementation of unifying measures and heighten a focus on domestic problems.

Signs of deep discontent have erupted onto the European scene with elections in France, Germany, and Italy recently. In each case, the leaders and parties in power were shaken by electoral discontent that can be expected to force a concentration on internal issues. Voter wrath also characterized the runup to Britain's general elections yesterday, where polls showed the Labour Party besting the reigning Conservatives for the first time in 13 years.

The irony facing these countries, many analysts say, is that so much decisionmaking power is now concentrated at the European Community level - in nondemocratic EC institutions such as the executive Commission in Brussels and Germany's powerful Bundesbank, which already acts as a kind of European central bank - that in many cases national leaders cannot respond effectively to the domestic clamor they face.

Germany's asylum issue is complex, but part of what irritates voters is to hear that a borderless EC means the problem of refugees must be increasingly addressed at the European level. Many Germans were also shocked to learn following Maastricht that, in the name of European economic unity, the stable deutsche mark is to be sacrificed for a European currency.

France learned last year from a very short-lived attempt to tackle unemployment by unilaterally lowering interest rates that it no longer has that leeway in the European monetary context. And a protectionist segment of Italy's population is fearful of the harsh economic rigor in store for them if a free-spending Italy is to meet the strict criteria for participating in EC monetary union.

"The strong protest vote we are seeing across Europe is against national governments and their inability to address the problems worrying people," says Robert Picht, director of the German-French Institute in Ludwigsburg, Germany. "But in many cases that national impotence is linked to a shifting of power to Brussels."

Yet even as citizens across Europe press interests that will likely slow momentum for European unity, opposite pressures continue for even greater concentration of powers at the European level. EC Commission President Jacques Delors hinted at the profoundly deeper political integration he sees as necessary in a speech to the European Parliament this week. He called for much wider use of majority voting, a streamlined commission where not every EC country would have a member, and a "genuine European execu tive" to act on external policies.

Some European analysts insist that part of the reactionary mood among voters in Europe results from poor understanding of the deep changes Europe is undergoing and the ramifications of the EC's integration process. European leaders, these analysts say, are now "facing the music" from angry citizens who have never been told clearly and honestly about the changes and costs that upheaval in Europe - especially since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 - would entail.

"People were told about a peace dividend, but what they are seeing now right in their paycheck is the cost to them of [German] reunification," says Angelika Volle, a senior research fellow with the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn.

European leaders have failed to explain the benefits of European integration, says Rene Lasserre, director of France's Center for the Study of Contemporary Germany, and that has left many people with the lingering fear that a larger Europe means "mostly negative things": higher unemployment, more competition, more immigrants, and less security. The road to Maastricht was "something of a forced march," Mr. Lasserre says, "and now the people are using [elections] to get their revenge."

"We simply have yet to digest the shock of 1989 and the complete shake-up in Europe that has followed," says Phillipe Moreau-Defarges, a specialist on Europe with the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. Europe will have trouble pulling out of this period of uncertainty, he says, as long as its leaders lack the ability to explain complex issues and promote the benefits of a unified Europe to their people.

This uncertainty could easily continue through the decade, Mr. Picht says, or until Europe bridges the gap between Community-level policies and democratic systems that have not yet evolved to keep up with the changing decisionmaking structure. "It's what we call the democratic deficit," he says, "and it is abetting the creation of an environment of insecurity."

Lasserre says Mr. Delors is right to push for deeper political reforms despite voters' skepticism.

"The priority now is a Maastricht II that would address the political question marks left open by a summit that stuck mostly to issues of economic integration," he says. "Short of that, people who feel no connection to this new Europe or who feel they have no say in it will simply refuse to go any farther in the dark."

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