Europe in search of a new rationale

Posted in Europe | 16-Jun-05 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

EU flags blow in the wind in front of EU headquarters in Brussels on Thursday June 16, 2005.
BRUSSELS As European leaders gather here Thursday in crisis mode to assess the state of the Union, the real question, senior analysts and policy makers say, is not about what may be breaking apart, but rather what new may emerge.

The last few weeks have made clear the depth of the disconnect between political leaders and the broader European public. But even amid the current disarray over where Europe is heading, new thinking is breaking through the old.

In interviews over the last week, the analysts - from Britain, France, Germany, Latvia, Spain and the United States - have come up with a surprisingly unified 21st century vision.

The European Union, whose foundations were laid after World War II with the principal aim of safeguarding peace and stability, needs a new raison d'être, they say, and can find it in the challenge of globalization.

"Today, Europeans don't have the perception of a common threat, just a diffuse concern about globalization and declining levels of welfare," Ana Palacio said.

The head of the Spanish Parliament's joint committee on European affairs added, "We need to market Europe as an answer to globalization."

Given the seismic shock waves from French and Dutch voters' rejection of the proposed European constitution, the tightening of the European Union's economic and political ties is unlikely to proceed as quickly as in the past, but is equally unlikely to be reversed, the analysts say.

Instead, more subgroups, cooperating on anything from defense to economic policy, are likely to emerge in the EU.

"What people today want is a Europe that delivers useful benefits: jobs, a clean environment, a foreign policy success on Iran," said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London. "It's a utilitarian Europe."

Even Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the architect of the imperiled European constitution, agrees that fundamental change is in order.

"Peace and reconciliation were achieved a long time ago - you can't rouse people's passions for something that is 50 years old," he said. "The new motivation can only be one of size. As individual nations, we are too small to deal with the challenges of tomorrow."

European countries will be unable to tackle problems like the environment or illegal immigration on their own. As Asian countries like China and India emerge as major players in the global economy, young Europeans also face a future in which the economic and geopolitical weight of their continent is in decline. Their concerns about globalization and outsourcing came through sharply in the French constitutional referendum: the main reason cited in a Sofres exit poll of those who voted no was fear of unemployment.

The trouble, Palacio said, is that rather than considering the EU to be a way to better cope with globalization, many people in Western Europe still feel that the union's recent eastward expansion has invited the unwanted consequences of globalization onto the continent.

"The fears of the Polish plumber will not go away with the no votes on the constitution because he is a reality and here to stay," Palacio said. "But there is a big gap between leaders and voters today, and we cannot go on with European integration as we always have. The motto of enlightened despotism - everything for the people, but without the people - no longer works."

Beyond communication, a key question is how to make economic globalization work for Europe.

At the moment, there are two camps: Those, notably in Britain and the Nordic countries, who have lobbied for more deregulation in Europe and favor enlargement; and those, notably in France and Germany, who are pushing for more political integration and have traditionally taken a cooler view on the union's expansion.

If integration and enlargement have both proceeded in recent decades it was because the two camps were able to trade one off against the other, Grant said. But after the recent French and Dutch no votes, neither is likely to evolve much further, he said.

"French and Dutch voters have basically killed treaty-driven integration - after this precedent it will be very hard to ratify far-reaching treaties without submitting them to a referendum," he said. "That also probably means the end of enlargement: core Europe only tolerated enlargement because there was deepening at the same time. That bargain is now off."

That does not mean that current institutions are likely to be dismantled, said Andrew Moravcsik, director of the European Union Program at Princeton University.

"Looking back in 50 years, historians will not see the referenda as the end of the EU - not even as the beginning of the end," he said. "European integration has reached a stable plateau."

Many analysts now expect subgroups of countries to reinforce their cooperation in specific areas. Like the 12 countries sharing the single currency, other networks could emerge cooperating on defense or economic reforms.

"What we will probably see emerge is different networks cooperating on different issues inside the EU," Palacio said. "In that sense Europe is pioneering a new world order: a multi-network Europe within a common institutional framework."

Various scenarios are envisioned by Grant. The euro group may decide to deepen its cooperation on economic policy; countries supporting a proposal to deregulate the services market could set up a common market in services.

In the future, such reinforced cooperation may even be a way to bring enlargement back from the dead if specific countries are admitted to specific networks, he said.

Whatever the face of the EU tomorrow, getting citizens on board will be a precondition, Palacio said.

In the history of the EU, voters have rarely been consulted about matters of further integration or enlargement. In most member states, mainstream political parties are pro-European, which tends to leave questions over Europe out of national election campaigns.

Dutch voters said the referendum on the constitution was the first time they had their say on EU politics, while the last EU-related referendum in France took place in 1992, over euro membership. The lack of consultation mattered less at a time when leaders and voters were roughly on the same wavelength in terms of what the EU was perceived to stand for.

But now, with governments and the media diverging from the electorate at large, the grass roots are questioning the EU's legitimacy.

The answer, perhaps more than trying to fiddle with institutions, is tangible results on matters that people care about, said Werner Weidenfeld, director of the Center for Applied Policy Research in Munich.

"Today's legitimacy crisis is largely a question of output," said Weidenfeld, a former adviser to Chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Kohl. "At every level of governance, effective delivery is the key to legitimacy."

Fifty years ago people craved peace and stability, and the European integration delivered. Today they want security, a clean environment and, most importantly, jobs, a demand that governments in many EU countries have failed to fulfill.

Economic growth in the EU has lagged behind that of the United States for the best part of a decade and unemployment, at a regional average of 8.9 percent today, is significantly higher than the 5.1 percent on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Europe needs to focus," said Martins Bondars, chief of staff of the Latvian president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga. "The key challenge today is very clear: it is the economy. How can we make sure that the engine of growth is restored?"

Bondars added, "Our generation takes peace and stability for granted - you only really appreciate it when you don't have it.

"World War II is history, communism is history," Bondars continued, "and we live in a completely different world today - Europe has to change with the world."