The Duck of Minerva

Identities, Interests, and the EU

30 May 2005

Patrick’s post regarding yesterday’s “Non” vote in France brings up an interesting point, one that is often missing from discussions of European integration in the MSM (mainstream media)–the importance of identity for political outcomes. Patrick argues that the vote yesterday was not driven by economic interests per se, but rather the successful framing of the issue by right and left groups as one of “us” (France) vs. “them” (other Europeans).

While I believe identity played a role in this outcome I think it is more complicated than a simple self-other distinction (not that Patrick has advocated such a simple distinction). The Non coalition included elements of the far right and left, leaving right-leaning centrists to account for most of the Oui vote (as far as I can tell). Given the nature of the Non coalition it seems worthwhile to explore exactly what identities were central to the Non vote.

The far right seemed to frame the issue along purely nationalistic lines; i.e. we should not allow some supranational body to determine our fate, policies, interests. This argument is not just about economic issues specifically, but rather encompasses a purely parochial notion of identity and the need to maintain sovereignty lest some distrustful other in Brussels becomes empowered.

But those on the left, especially the over 60% socialist voters who came out against the constitution, seemed to be more interested in their economic identities rather than their national identities. What this means is that the left objected because of the economic elements in the constitution which they viewed as Anglo-Saxon and ultraliberal–not simply for the fact that France may loose some sovereignty to Brussels. For the left, they were defining themselves as workers to some extent, a group that is likely to be harmed by such a constitution even though it might benefit the EU overall (i.e. by making labor markets more productive and increasing productivity–two things most commentators believe is crucial for EU economy). It seems to me they weren’t rejecting those outside of France per se, but rather the symbol of the EU as an entity which represents ultra-liberal, market values rather than socialist values. It could be argued that those on the left weren’t simply thinking of the damage to the French left but to workers, period, across Europe. But more data is needed to validate that assertion.

Identity certainly played a role in this, but there seemed to be a number of identities at play at the same time that just so happened to coalesce around the same goal–voting “Non”. The right framed the debate as one of “France versus Europe” while the left framed it as “socialists versus Anglo-Saxon, ultraliberals”. This has interesting implications for how Chirac as well as the other European elites move forward and attempt to reframe the debate as well as revise policy down the road; do they try to carve out more national sovereignty so as to quell the fears of the right in Europe or do they go ahead and revise the economic policies to bring the left along? Stay tuned…