Saturday, May 28, 2005

Blaming Polish plumbers and British legal drafters 

If the EU constitution referendum goes down in France tomorrow (and according to Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of France's ruling party, it's not a question of if, but by how much), you will be able to blame - or thank, depending on your point of view - my compatriot:
If French president Jacques Chirac finds himself scratching his head on Monday morning, wondering why so many voters rejected the European Union constitution, he should know immediately who to blame: the Polish plumber.

This mythical, rarely seen figure has become the symbol of everything that is wrong with the constitution for French people, worried about an invasion of low-paid workers from new EU member states stealing their jobs and destroying their social system.

Just as crime became the big issue in the 2002 presidential elections, so concern about job losses and delocalisation, or outsourcing, has dominated this year's referendum campaign.
Predictably, upon closer look Polish plumber turns into a Polish strawman:
The Polish plumber debate has touched a nerve, in spite of economic data showing that France has far more to gain than it stands to lose from opening its borders to trade and workers from new EU members, just as it did when Spain and Portugal joined 20 years ago...

Pascal Lamy, the French former EU commissioner and incoming head of the World Trade Organisation, said "plumber-phobia" had been "cunningly manipulated" in a way that reminded him of "simple xenophobia".

Even the head of the French plumbing union thinks he may have a point: France is short of about 6,000 plumbers, according to John Christopher Vignati, delegate-general of the GCCP. He says there are perhaps 150 Polish plumbers in France, most on short-term contracts with sub-contractors on big construction sites. But he says worries about foreign plumbers are "not completely ridiculous" as even a small number could "create a social problem" by forcing down wages.
And so, the 150 Polish plumbers are today but one step away from walking into history books, to march alongside Leonidas's 300 Spartans or the 190 defender of Alamo as a group of people whose symbolism far exceeds their numbers.

I've spent quite a lot of time lately looking at the Frenchreferendumm - perhaps too much, but like a train wreck, I just can't resist watching. I can't remember the last time one political event in Europe has provided so many quotable quotes and demonstrated so clearly everything that's wrong with the Euroelites. And so the fun continues - the latest: the French blame-game:
[British] Government sources are braced for the French president to round on the Prime Minister [Blair] and blame him for making the constitution too "Anglo-Saxon" on economic issues and for plunging Europe into crisis as a result...

British diplomats believe that Mr Chirac will call for France, Germany and other nations to form a "core Europe" in which they can push ahead with integration without being held back by laggards such as Britain.
Laggards? But it's the French, not the British who are voting against further integration tomorrow. Never mind, who cares about the people, anyway? As Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, a European Commission spokesman, said recently, "it is clear that all 25 governments and all the European institutions... remain united in the desire to see the constitution enter into force eventually." It's also increasingly clear that governments and institutions in Europe are bodies that are completely detatched from those they are supposed to represent. I'm sure there'll be plenty more of that in the coming weeks.

Still, the invocation of the concept of "core Europe" - Old Europe? - is interesting, providing yet another indication that the elites are having regrets about the recent expansion of the EU, which, while paying lip service to the pan-European ideal has, only served to dilute the power and position of the Berlin-Brussels-Paris axis. Still, too late for regrets.

In the meantime, read our occasional guest-blogger Sophie Masson writing about France's "Asterix complex".


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