I was traveling to Paris just before the French referendum on the European Union Constitution, not quite sure how to react to its impending defeat. Most of the voices against the Constitutional Treaty were from the socialist Left, which criticized the “Anglo-Saxon liberalism” that allows people to work more than 35 hours a week, and the xenophobic Right epitomized by Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose candidacy in 2002 resulted in Jacques Chirac's re-election and all the misery that it brought the world.
As I rose to leave the train, I noticed that my leather briefcase had disappeared from the overhead compartment. Walking to luggage rack near the exit, I found my suitcase had also vanished. Luckily, all my valuables were in a shoddy backpack which had survived the 90-minute journey from Brussels. A very kind train official offered his assistance, as we searched all the empty compartments. He then took me to the lost-and-found. Nothing there. Would I like to file a report with the police? Knowing that this would do little to turn up my bags but would have the salutary effect of driving up the official crime statistics, I said yes, I would. We made our way to the police station, only to find it closed. It was 10 o'clock on a Thursday morning.
This is typical of a society that turns over all responsibility to the state. It's what Margaret Thatcher called “the nanny state” and what the late Pope John Paul II warned about when, in his 1991 encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, he criticized the welfare state and its “inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State.” The nanny state – with its bloated, unaccountable bureaucracy and its centralized power – stands in direct contradiction to the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching. Subsidiarity means that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
People who expect the state to do everything for them will come to do nothing for themselves, whereas a healthy democracy depends on notions such as self-governance and moral responsibility supported by vibrant religious faith and practice. It is no surprise that Europe's woes continue as governmental power grows and faith lags.
The clearest lesson of the failed May 29 referendum in France and, a few days later, the decisive “no” vote in the Netherlands is that Europe's governing elite has suffered a tremendous defeat, a symptom of its growing “democratic deficit.” The political class in European countries like France and Italy is nothing short of imperious. It simply does what it wants, with little or no regard for the well-being of the average citizen, and at great economic and even spiritual cost. When the rare reformer proposes some necessary changes, such as lower taxes, less regulation, pension or labor-market flexibility, the unions and other vested interests come down on this person like a ton of bricks. And nothing changes.
Typically, Dutch government officials hinted that they might ignore a “no” vote if less than 30 percent of voters turned out. But 63 percent of voters went to the polls, and 62 percent of those who did sent the charter down in flames. Prime Minister Peter Balkenende magnanimously agreed to accept his people's verdict.
The European Union is in a serious crisis. The bureaucrats in Brussels may have been able to steamroll the concerns of Ireland, Denmark, and even Britain, but when France and the Netherlands say no, the game is up.
As Bill Kristol noted in The Weekly Standard, there are some “fresh-thinking” young neoconservatives and neoliberals in Europe whose voices have been so far been neglected. They are reacting against the arrogance and anti-democratic ethos of Europe's political elites. As Kristol puts it:
It's hard for Americans to appreciate just how out-of-touch the establishment (and it really is a single establishment) of Paris, Berlin, the Hague, and Brussels is. It's arrogance almost beyond belief. Former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the father of the 448-article constitution, early on in the campaign dismissed complaints about the document's opacity by assuring his countrymen, "The text is easily read and quite well phrased, which I can say all the more easily since I wrote it myself." As Ivan Rioufol of Le Figaro, writing in the Wall Street Journal, commented, “The French didn't know whether he was simply cynical or unaware of the absurdity of his statement. And so he became a caricature of the self-obsessed, aloof politician.”
Certainly, the vote against the EU constitution was not wholly motivated by a reaction against the welfare state – many voters were hoping to preserve it and their privileges. But the referendum affirmed the truth that John Paul voiced so eloquently about human nature being “made for freedom.” The brakes are being applied, and by the very people whom EU bureaucrats and politicians have treated so dismissively: voters.