LONDON — So the French have voted down the proposed EU Constitution decisively. What now? Will the European Union fall apart? Certainly not. Does it mean that the attempt to impose a single “top-down” constitution on all 25 member states is dead? Probably — especially if the Netherlands also votes “No” this week.
Does it mean that the EU will simply be kept as it is today, as many influential people, including a former British foreign secretary, advise and predict? No, that is the worst mind-set of all, guaranteeing further division and trouble. It is precisely the failure to appreciate how fast the world is changing, and how fundamentally the rise of the network age has altered the whole pattern of international relations — and the character of the EU in particular — that has led to the present impasse.
A whole army of European leaders, experts, officials and apologists have wasted years, as well as forests of paper, chasing after a flawed belief that Europe can somehow be welded into a solid bloc that will carry weight on the world stage, counter-balance American hegemony and confront Asian challenges.
These people seem not to have grasped that networks have now replaced hierarchies and blocs. They seem not to have understood that the advent of the information age, the new era of globalization and the huge dispersal of information and power make old-style central authority and governance redundant. People power has now been e-enabled, humbling high authority while making the whole business of government much more difficult and subtle.
This applies as much to the EU as to the nation states within it. Trying to recreate the EU in the image of the 200-year-old United States was a foolish mistake. It was worse, because it has distracted the Europeans from the real new tasks to which they should be applying their combined strength — namely combating the rise of global terror, crime and the warped power of fanaticism, which also derives its dangerous growth from the information revolution. This is the dark side of globalization.
I tried to warn about this over six years ago in my book “The Edge of Now.” But few people took the slightest notice. The EU experts pressed on with their plans for more and more integration and centralization, regardless of the changed balance of power, and national governments continue to this day to assert absurd degrees of authority and control — which they no longer possess — over issues such as economic management and social engineering. These efforts then fail and increase general distrust and frustration.
This fallacious thinking is now even being extended to overseas development, where the conviction has grown that ever larger dollops of government aid can somehow lead to Third World development and abolish poverty. Of course they will do no such thing. They merely increase Third World frustration and fury that the real development issues — good and light governance, the rule of law, the unshackling of individual enterprise, the establishment of well-run markets and open trade, and the entrenchment of property and investment rights — continue to be ignored.
As all these initiatives fail yet again, people confusedly turn to dreams of world government and new master plans and strategies in a search for the magic button that will solve all these problems and disputes with one click.
But the central task is — and has been ever since the rise of networks, the Internet and the information explosion more than 20 years ago — not to surrender the state to some unaccountable supranationalism, not to look for central “solutions,” in Europe or elsewhere, but to let the healthy grass roots grow everywhere, to let innovation and enterprise flourish and the good side of globalization bring its colossal potential to bear, both at local and global level. The task is not to give up on the nation state but to recast it so that it can play an effective part in resolving all these issues.
The same goes for the EU. Some people hope that a new generation of European leaders, such as Nicholas Sarkozy in France, or Angela Merkel, the new Christian Democratic Union Party leader in Germany, will recognize these truths and abandon the search for a tightknit European bloc, in favor of something much more modest and flexible.
But the omens are not good. Both these leaders, and others in the EU leadership in Brussels and elsewhere, continue to talk as though a bunched-together Europe, ruled by one high authority and one legal system, is “the answer,” and that with or without referendums, and with or without popular consent, this is the goal for which to press.
Eventually they will learn, but not before more damage has been done to sensible and practical cooperation in the European region, and more chances of missed of linking up with the global network, and the Asian parts of that network in particular.
For 600 years or so, ever since China’s retreat into itself before 1400, it has been the Western Europeans who have set the pace and style in government and social organization. But perhaps it is now time for a reversal. Perhaps it is time for the Europeans to look outwards and learn from Asia how to govern and work together effectively. It is sadly obvious that by looking inward, and by trying to apply old principles to a new world order, they are making a dreadful mess of things.
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