Anne Applebaum on the New Europeans

Looking at the French elections, Anne Applebaum defines Sarkozy’s constituency as the New Europeans—those who are willing to emigrate:

Thanks to the European Union, which has opened borders and eliminated employment barriers, it is now not only possible to move, it is downright easy. And not only for the French: Something like a million Poles have left home since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, largely for England and Ireland. Unlike France, Poland is booming. But as in France, high taxes and complex regulations mean that jobs for young Poles are still too scarce and badly paid. Abroad, young Poles earn more and are treated better.

When they come back (if they come back) they’ll demand no less. The plumbers in Warsaw already expect to be paid something remarkably close to what plumbers are paid in Berlin — that is, if you can find a plumber in Warsaw at all.

All of this is, of course, precisely what previous generations of European politicians have feared. For the past decade, French, German and other European leaders have tried to unify European tax laws and regulations, the better to “even out the playing field” — or (depending on your point of view) to make life equally difficult everywhere. The emigration patterns of the past decade — and the past five years in particular — prove that that effort has failed. Sarkozy’s election campaign, if successful, might put the final nail in the coffin.

The political and economic consequences of this new mobility could be quite profound. Countries such as Poland and France may soon be forced to scrap those regulations and taxes that hamper employment, however much the French unions and the Polish bureaucracy want to keep them: If they don’t, their young people won’t come home. Leaders in those countries may also have to alter their rhetoric. Sarkozy’s Socialist opponent, Ségolène Royal, now uses words such as “entrepreneurship” at least some of the time, too.

Down the road, there could be cultural consequences as well. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the European Union’s failure to create anything resembling a meaningful European “Idea.” Almost by accident, the European Union may have created a new kind of European citizen instead: mobile, English-speaking, Internet-using, perhaps with the same nostalgia for Krakow or Dijon that first-generation New Yorkers feel for Missouri or Mississippi but nevertheless willing to live pretty much anywhere. Sarkozy is the first European politician to appeal directly to these new Europeans. Even if he loses, he probably won’t be the last.

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Filed under Europe, France, Poland

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