It's History That's Tearing the E.U. Apart

By Claire Berlinski
Sunday, June 5, 2005

ISTANBUL

Move from austere Paris to this anarchic city as I have done this summer, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that the idea of integrating Turkey into the European Union is and always has been ludicrous. Turkey is not Europe, and it is certainly not France.

I do not say this merely because the phones, electricity, hot water and front door lock have failed on me, serially, since my arrival, along with the Internet, refrigerator and stove. I say this because every Turk to whom I've spoken wants nothing more than the chance to become part of the predicted flood of cheap, unskilled labor that would almost certainly destabilize the economies and social orders of the Northern European welfare states if Europe and its periphery were to be glued together and all the borders thrown open.

The French understood that when they voted non last weekend to the European Union constitution, as did the Dutch when they followed suit with their nee on Wednesday. Contrary to the assurances of many of their politicians, people in those countries recognized that their core national values were under threat by the prospect of an expanded and unified Europe.

Istanbul is a fantastic city, don't get me wrong -- it's utterly alive, messy and exotic. But it is sobering to reflect that supposedly thoughtful politicians have been considering the idea that France and Turkey might within our lifetimes be merged into one harmonious entity. Indeed, it is an indicator of the level of delusion that has accompanied the E.U. dream.

Deep down, the ordinary Frenchman doesn't believe that Turks, or Eastern Europeans for that matter, cherish the values he holds most dear. Nor do the French much trust that the Germans and the British have French interests at heart. Given European history -- and given what I see around me -- I can't say I blame them.

Over the past few weeks, the pro-Europe talking heads on French television have been busy poking fun at French fears of the "proverbial Polish plumber" who is ready to steal jobs from the locals. But how the pundits can argue that he is only proverbial is beyond me. If you want to test the theory, try living in a Paris apartment that needs repainting, as mine did a few weeks ago. Get estimates. French workmen will propose to do the job for 10,000 euros. The Polish painter? He can do it for 800 euros. Tomorrow. He doesn't ask for health insurance or social security, either. And this in a country where there is already 10 percent unemployment.

If I were a French house painter or plumber, I would have voted non, too.

But the more profound ideological differences were on vivid display recently in a revealing drama on a Paris sidewalk: A shady-looking character ran up the street. Suddenly, a man wearing the familiar outfit of a French waiter rushed up behind him, yelling at him to stop, then charged into him, knocking him to the ground with a clatter. The waiter straddled the man and began slapping his face, calling him a filthy thief.

A police motorcycle roared up. Off hopped a cop who could not have been more than 25. He interposed himself between the thief and the waiter, and then, with his finger in the air, began a lecture. Never raising his voice, he told the infuriated waiter that no matter what the thief might have stolen -- some customer's wallet, it seems -- he had no right to settle matters privately. The policeman outlined the procedure for filing a civil or criminal complaint.

Then he said, slowly and quite distinctly: "In France, we have the law."

As these words rolled over the waiter -- they were repeated several times -- his face registered first embarrassment, then unease and then what was unmistakably a deep sense of shame. In France we have the law. Not, "There are laws against that, buddy," as a New York cop might have said, but "In France, we have the law," almost as if, as the representative of the state, the policeman was addressing the untamed aspect of the human heart itself. And then, with the alleged thief in custody, the policeman adjusted his sunglasses and was off.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company