Global Policy Forum

Europe Is Still Europe


By Richard Bernstein

New York Times
June 6, 2005

Does Europe have a soul? Would anybody die for Europe?

Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, was asked those questions the other day by an American wondering whether the rejection of the European Union's constitution in France and the Netherlands last week meant that the European Union lacked a core, that it could never be to its citizens what the United States is to Americans. "European soldiers," Mr. Fischer said, answering the question about who dies for Europe. European soldiers are facing danger in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo, he continued, speaking at a forum at the American Academy in Berlin. They are there as members of national contingents, but they are serving a wider interest - Europe's.

"There is a soul," Mr. Fischer said. "There is a sprit. And people die for Europe, and have died." To be sure, few experts are denying that the European Project, as an ever-higher integration and cooperation is called, is in a deep crisis. Its central element, many of those who follow European Union affairs say, is the failure of the organization to make the citizens of its member countries feel that the project belongs to them - that it is accountable, and not controlled by unelected bureaucrats in the European capital, Brussels, who make rules about everything from how many Muslim immigrants Europe will have, to the length of window washers' ladders.

There is no doubt that on some important questions, most notably the negotiations on Turkey's membership, the "no" votes in France and the Netherlands will make agreement vastly more difficult, maybe impossible. But it would be premature to write the European Union's obituary or to declare it a failure. The plain fact is that there are numerous reasons to declare it a success.

It has 25 member states, making it the world's largest single market, and will grow to 27 with the addition of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. It has 450 million citizens, a Parliament, a Convention on Human Rights that states must sign as a condition for membership. Most members share a common currency, the euro. While the European Union divided over the Iraq war, it has forged many common security policies and goals, from its joint military missions in Macedonia and Congo to the negotiations being carried out on its behalf by Britain, France and Germany with Iran about its nuclear program.

There are, as Mark Leonard, director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform in London, points out, about 80,000 pages of common European law, policed by the European Court of Justice, a final legal recourse that transcends national boundaries. Some Europeans of course complain that all that law is exactly the problem - that a third to a half of all national legislation now is forged in Brussels, not in the national capitals, and that some of that law regulates the way windows are washed in the canal houses of the Netherlands or the number of hours Welsh fisherman can spend at sea.

But the fact that all member states have to abide by that law is the point; Europe enters into everyday life in a major way, and like it or not, that is not about to change. "It's 50 years old, this month," John Palmer, political director of the European Policy Center in Brussels, said in an interview on Monday, referring to the agreement in Messina, Italy, in 1955, when the six founding European Union countries declared the intention of creating a common market for Europe. "It's gone far too far for it to be reversed."

Measured by the mood in France and the Netherlands, the sense is that the European Union's momentum has ground to a halt. European heads of state will meet in an emergency session in Brussels next week to try to decide how to get the machine in motion again. But measured against European history, European integration is a remarkable accomplishment, helping to transform a large war-torn, politically afflicted and economically divided region into an immense international club where war has become unthinkable. It has done so, not by eliminating nationalism, but by changing it. "People aren't less patriotic," Mr. Leonard said. "National identities haven't waned at all. If anything, they've become stronger. But the E.U. has changed the nature of nationalism within Europe, so it's no longer about fighting wars with each other, but managing diversity peacefully.

Over the weekend, even the strenuously neutral Swiss, not European Union members, voted to get a lot closer by becoming what is called a Schengen country, after an agreement in 1985 in Schengen, Luxembourg, that eliminated border formalities among 15 countries, all of them except Norway in the European Union. In other words, at a time when the Dutch and the French are worried that the European Union means uncontrolled and unwanted immigration - because anybody getting in to one member country essentially gains admission to them all - the Swiss decided that becoming a sort of ex-officio member of the club was worth the risk.

Moreover, every member country has had groups all along that are convinced the European Union is not worth the price or the effort - because it is too regulatory, or that it crushes the national identity of the smaller countries, or that it cedes control to its big members, especially Germany and France. But it is unlikely that majorities in any of the member states would forgo membership altogether.

As Mr. Fischer put this in his remarks at the American Academy, in his view, if the French had faced a situation where a "no" vote on the constitution would have meant getting out of the European Union altogether, the constitution would have won by a big margin.

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