A chance for Europe to face the New Truth

Posted in Europe | 24-Jun-08 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

AMSTERDAM: Welcome to the European Union's how-to era: how to save it, how to fix it, how to make its peoples love it - or, failing that, like it enough to care.

The reality is that they don't, unless the matter at hand directly concerns new benefits, unwanted obligations or the fear of reducing the multiple and already-pocketed individual advantages of EU membership.

And now, since the Irish voted no in a referendum on a plan to reorganize the EU, and the EU's leaders held a flailing, ineffectual summit meeting to talk about what has been called a body blow to the community's integrated future, Europe is asking how to heal itself.

This is intriguing for three reasons:

a) It involves Europe articulating more home truths - although far from all of them - about the EU than it usually dares.

b) Those divisive truths, as the rest of the world is noting, suggest Europe is not going to be a unified global power anytime soon.

c) Yet the remedies being offered up for knitting the community together don't deal with the most excruciating realities.

The New Truth discussion acknowledges that Europe is not an affair of the heart that is welding self-sacrifice, resolve and patriotism into a common goal as a world player.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German member of the European Parliament, said it well: "We have societies with an egotistical sense of logic." They think, "Why say yes to something that's an obligation to share something we're already getting?"

The New Truth advocates correctly put down the notion that the Irish vote against the Lisbon Treaty could be shrugged off as a peripheral shop-floor accident to be prettied up with paste, string and blue lights.

Hubert Védrine, the former French foreign minister, got it right:

"Everybody knows that if there were referendums everywhere, the noes would have won in several countries. The disagreement between the elites and the populations is flagrant." (Védrine spoke before a poll last weekend showed France, had it voted, joining Ireland's rejection front.)

The fact is, jolts like the Irish no, coming after French and Dutch ones in 2005 referendums, consolidate a pattern indicating that national self-interest will consistently trump the EU's formation of unified policy.

On a transcendental issue like the creation of the euro, a single vision was possible because German national interest dictated that abandoning the Deutsche mark - in effect, German control over European monetary policy - was the bona fide necessary to convince Europe a reunified Germany would not attempt to run the EU.

Demonstrably short of that political will, the potential for unity these days among the EU's 27 members does not easily extend beyond initiatives where national risk and responsibility is low. Just look at its decision last week to lift trade barriers on Cuba, even though dissidents in Havana said it was the wrong thing to do.

Every bit as powerful as the Irish no vote, a series of conflicting national interests defines Europe's current incapacity to develop a single approach on its highest priority, energy supply.

Concern about fuel costs is at the heart of citizens' interests, but the EU does not combat as one the high prices enraging consumers or its increasing dependency on Russia as its energy source.

The Irish vote, although it's not acknowledged as such, is essentially Europe's peoples' response to its leadership's failure on the big jobs. And it points directly at the opposition between individual citizens and Védrine's European elites whose complicated plans for more integration deepen the average Joe's indifference or alienation.

How could China or India or the United States not fail to notice this empty space behind Europe's place card?

In the dumb and dumber league, remedies are being suggested that perpetuate the problem. Take Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, who has spoken out for a Europe-wide referendum that could ask the question, "Do you want to be an EU member and as such renounce certain types of competence and demands?" Uh-uh.

What Europe could do, since it describes itself as the master of soft power, is stop trying to pile new, hard architecture on its soft mass.

That means forgetting about becoming a mammoth lumbering with the cast iron paraphernalia of an all-purpose state.

It could do things differently. And more simply.

For example: concentrate its skills and energies on a single project. Deal with energy supply as a quasi-exclusive community priority for an unlimited period.

People's interest is there, and God knows there are enough bureaucrats in the 27 states and European Commission to handle all the rest of the business as usual.

Then, rather than create an official multispeed Europe - a bad idea, again in circulation, which would designate many countries as second and third division players - go back to square one and give each member three or four elective opt-outs.

Without demeaning relegation, those countries would be free of certain EU rules, but only after renouncing the possibility to vote on or veto the rest of community's decisions concerning the issues they chose in advance to bypass.

In addition, forget about the Lisbon Treaty's presidents and foreign ministers. Strong personalities with too much leadership potential (think of Tony Blair) just won't get the jobs - as the discussions (limited to government horse-traders) on candidates so far have shown.

Admit it: a Europe settling for one of its lesser lights, like Juncker, would command less respect in Moscow than an EU without a chief executive which restricts its own members' sweetheart deals with Gazprom, and uses its economic leverage to stare down threats of energy blackmail while enforcing fair prices.

Finally, for its unlimited promise, focus on creating a more organic relationship with the United States, particularly in the economic area.

Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown are all for it. Amazingly, the Americans are increasingly so. Barack Obama and John McCain, because they need to, will be listening to anything that sounds mutually profitable.

Europe likes to think of itself being able to think and - who knows? - to act differently. It's obvious, now's the time.