The Magazine

My E.U. Vacation

From the June 13, 2005 issue: What I learned reading the European constitution on a French beach in the Caribbean.

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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According to the constitution, the E.U. is (or was) to have five branches of government: the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of Ministers, the European Commission, and the Court of Justice of the European Union; plus two advisory bodies: the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee; and four additional independent institutions: the European Central Bank, the European Investment Bank, the Court of Auditors, and the European Ombudsman. Here we have a system of bounced checks and balances.

Part II of the constitution, "The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the Union," gives us an idea of what "rights" are supposed to mean in Europe: "Everyone has the right to life." This, on a continent where there's more respect for Dick Cheney than for a fetus. The Charter prohibits "making the human body and its parts as such a source of financial gain." Botox injections will be covered by National Health. There is a "right" to "an annual period of paid leave." (I was having mine.) And a declaration that "The use of property may be regulated by law insofar as is necessary for the general interest." Lenin couldn't have put it better. What there was in this constitution that a subtle, sophisticated European could object to eluded me, as did reading the rest of it.

I was getting bored. I could go hiking in the mountains, except it was 95 degrees. I could take a refreshing dip, except the ocean was 95 degrees. Guadeloupe's painters and artisans are almost bad enough to get into the Venice Biennale. There was nothing in the stores but European stuff at European prices, and, anyway, the stores were, in European fashion, closed most of the time. I began to get American thoughts about jet skis, water park slides, and vast air-conditioned malls. Guadeloupe is lovely. However, there isn't much to do but eat. Every third building seems to be a restaurant. I chose one of the most prepossessing establishments. The Big Mac was delicious.

For some reason (and judging by the E.U. constitution, it was an elaborate one) the referendum in Guadeloupe was held a day before the referendum in mainland France. I went to a polling place at a reinforced concrete school where "Joyeux Noël" decorations still hung in the corridor, and interviewed . . . somebody. She seemed to be in charge of something. I said, "Parlez-vous English?"

She said, "Non."

Actually, I claim that there's a tremendous journalistic advantage to covering politics when you can't speak the language. You aren't misled into reporting what people say; you're forced to report the inexorable truth of what people do.

The people of Guadeloupe weren't doing much. They certainly weren't voting. I counted 10 voters in the Joyeux Noël school and none at the next two polling places I visited. The streets of Pointe-à-Pitre were crowded. The stores were open for a change, but the crowds seemed to be standing around more than shopping. Of course maybe they were standing in line. Guadeloupe provides a very European level of service.

The next day, back in Europe itself, France rejected the E.U. constitution because (CNN International informed me) the French were worried about competition from Eastern Europeans for French jobs. According to French unemployment figures, the French don't have jobs. In Guadeloupe they're more self-confident about doing nothing. The département voted "Oui" in the referendum, albeit with a do-nothing 22 percent turnout.

At the airport, leaving Guadeloupe, I talked to a mainland Frenchman, Antoine. We were standing in line. A reggae band was on our flight. They had drums. Detailed consideration of the weight and measurements of the drum set had brought seat selection and baggage checking to a halt. Antoine went to buy a bottle of rum and came back 20 minutes later. "This island!" he said. "The airport is full of people and every duty-free shop is closed." Our line hadn't budged. "I have a business friend who lives here," Antoine said. "He was in a line like this at the post office in Pointe-à-Pitre. No one advanced in the line for more than an hour. At last he went to the front of the line and said to the postal clerk, 'Nobody is moving here!' She said, 'Oh, no?' and put up a sign that said 'Out to lunch,' and left."

The French are well advised to worry about competition. But not from the Czechs and Poles. Some citizens of their own country are better at being European than they are.

P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of Peace Kills (Atlantic Monthly Press).