This week the European Union turns 50. To mark the celebrations of the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundations of the EU, the German government – which is currently holding the presidency of the Union – will throw a huge party in Berlin, the city which above all symbolises the unity of Europe (see Anglofritz’s rundown for more details). Yet, behind the smiles and grand declarations of Angela Merkel, there appears to be little to be festive about. Or is there?
Well, there isn’t much fervour in Margot Wallstrom’s entry on the subject. You’d expect the Commissioner for Communication to sound bombastic about it, yet she talks about the Constitution and the birthday celebrations with a similar degree of disenchantment, one stemming perhaps from her busy travel schedule, but which still makes me wonder: if the Communication Commissioner isn’t particularly excited about it, who else should be?
Certainly not Humanitarian Aid and Development Commissioner Louis Michel, who will take a one-month unpaid leave of absence from the Commission while seeking to re-enter politics in his native Belgium. Clearly, for many top Eurocrats, the idea that a career inside the EU with a chance to improve the lives of billions of people living in poverty around the world might be more significant and rewarding than playing a role – even a relative one – in a minuscule European kingdom is still unthinkable.
With such role models, it comes as no surprise then that Europeans appear more sceptical about the unification project now than ever before. The rejection of the Constitutional Treaty has thrown the EU’s institutions – first and foremost the Commission – in a state of stunned disbelief. Although all politicians (especially from Germany) keep saying that approving the Constitution is a precondition for any further political development, especially further enlargement – which no one, not even existing or potential candidate countries seeem to want any longer – few have yet come up with a sensible idea about how to do this in practice. And indeed, for many the debate is very much a red herring. The problem – they say – is not the Constitution. The problem is the Union itself.
Member States’ political leaders have already started loading their guns, even if they don’t have any bullets yet. Take David Cameron’s uninspiring propositions, for example:
“Just as member states have in the past agreed to transfer competences to the EU, so it should be possible to move in the opposite direction. How can we enshrine the principle that powers can be returned to member states — not as a vague aspiration, but as a central element of the legal architecture of the Union? What are the tasks that we can return to national or local governments?”
In a classic of Tory politics, Cameron is trying to secure all the advantages Europe can give Britain (an open market where Britich capital can flow freely), without having to pay the costs for them (upholding social Europe, allowing human capital flows and committing to policy coordination inside and outside the Union). He wants the cake and eat it. Who can blame him, when the Labour government has hardly pressed for significant changes in the way the country perceives the benefits of EU membership? The UK is not only displaying the most vitriolic Euroscepticism inside the EU, which is often entirely misguided, but also blocking any political impetus for change, which would allow Europe to take off as a real political and economic force.
Salvation won’t come from France either. With Chirac out of the game, you’d expect one of the 3 main candidates to take on the pro-European mantle. Instead, what we got so far is an impressive realignment with British tactics, where the EU is (unjustly) blamed as scapegoat for France’s economic problems. And hope won’t come from any of the other Old Members States’ political leaderships. Prodi is too worried about reviving Italy’s dire economy, while Zapatero can be pleased about Spain’s growth performance, set to overtake Italy’s by 2009, but has troubles dealing with a Spanish electorate concerned about his national credentials due to his ‘softness’ towards separatist terrorists. I doubt Poland’s or other New Member States’ leaderships will fare better, although they have all to gain from further integration.
The picture looks bleak. The BBC half-heartedly tries to convince us that Europe DID do something for us after all, but is quick to point out that a little too much money is being spent on the birthday celebrations (what did you expect, spontaneous parties to break out in the streets, when all people hear from the media is how bad the EU is for us?). The Economist’s Edward Lucas gives up, and suggests that the only thing keeping us together is our contradictions, which is hardly an inspiring thought when trying to strengthen a sense of internal cohesion.
And while the Commission is rightly pushing forward the environmental agenda as an integration tool with clear political rather than ecological motivations, it is still incapable of bridging the democratic gap and engaging citizens directly in policy-formulations, preferring consultations which are at best huge exercises in naval-gazing. Instead of incresing its presence where people can most benefit from it – for example by expanding the network of Europe Direct offices, drop-in centres where people can find useful information about the EU – the Commission has decided instead to open an embassy on Second Life, in the vane hope that there at least people will take an interest in what the EU is doing for them.
The truth is, the European Union is doing much more for us Europeans and the wider world than most would give it credit for, and this is very much Europe’s birthday as it is the EU’s birthday. Sure, a lot more can be done, but this anniversary should be a time to celebrate, not recriminate. After all, if the US and UK are capable of spinning even their worst foreign policy disaster in recent history, why should the EU continue this absurd self-flagellation exercise?
To begin with, the EU – through the Single European Market – has brought unthinkable business opportunities to many European firms, who are now operating across borders and are embracing the challenges of economic globalization from an advantegous position. The Single Market, according to the Commission, has helped create 2.5 million new jobs in Europe and generated €800 billion in additional wealth since 1993. After enlargement in 2004, firms selling in the Single Market zone are now able to access more than 450 million consumers with incresingly low barriers to trade. It has also provided better consumer protection and promoted the right to study and work anywhere inside the Union. An entire generation of us has benefited from this amazing opportunity, and many more to come will continue to do so.
Then, there is the common foreign and security policy, on which I have ranted before, but which in a nutshell is the single biggest step we have ever taken towards a perpetual peace in Europe. A lot of people take this for granted now, but things were not so obvious 50 years ago, as the spectrum of war and genocide still lingered heavily over the continent. Before the integration project started, what Metternich said about Italy could have just as easily been said about Europe: that is was a mere geographical expression. Peace through integration remains the most important contribution the EU has made to Europe, as Timothy Garton Ash never fails to remind us, alongside freedom, law, prosperity, solidarity and diversity.
And it is in this final concept – diversity – that I find most hope for the future of the EU, seeing how our continent (and the entire planet) is becoming increasingly globalised, with not just dollars and euros, but also people, ideas, cultures, races, faiths and beliefs crossing borders at increasingly accelerated speed. Globalization is happening all around us, and whether we like it or not, we cannot stop it. The EU is helping us adapt to this challenge, first of all by reproducing a mini-globalization process around us, by which we have to learn how to live side by side, tolerating our differences, embracing our diversities in a spirit of mutual respect.
The EU is making sure for example that discriminatory bills like the recent homophobic one in Poland, which added a whole new dimension to the love which dare not speak its name – in the sense that if a teacher says the word ‘homosexuality’ in class, she’ll get fired – are assessed and if necessary shot down. Most of us have a lot to gain from these regulations, not just homosexuals, but also women, racial and religious minorities, disabled people, economic migrants and older people – in a word, all Europeans who are not white, middle class, middle aged, straight, able men. And not just Europeans. The EU’s soft power – stemming from the principles it represents, the human rights it defends, the carrots of enlargement and maket access and all the other policies it promotes inside and outside its borders – is slowly changing the way the world operates. It might not be as loud and brash a strategy as America’s hard power, but then is that such a bad thing?
After all, as widely known, the sound of one tree falling is greater than the sound of a whole forest growing.