Walker's World: The EU's grim year

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor   |   Dec. 31, 2005 at 1:53 PM

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- After a grim year of slow growth, riots and terror attacks from its Muslim immigrant underclass, rows over its budget and two thumping rejections by Dutch and French voters of its planned new constitution, the European Union's leaders can hardly wait for 2005 to be over to make a fresh start in the New Year.

Sadly, they will find the same old, familiar agenda waiting for them. It is an agenda that is likely to mean more rows over Turkish accession to the EU, divisions over what to do about Russia's use of its energy power to bully Ukraine, anguish over immigration, and a great deal more rhetoric about economic reform but only modest action.

To understand the depth of the EU gloom and the nature of the divisions, it is worth taking a close look at the 68-page report from the high priests of the European movement. Calling themselves "The Friends of Europe," this high-level group of EU movers and shakers have conferred on what to do next, and come up with very slim and not at all ambitious answer.

The Friends advocate pursuing economic reform, not through the EU itself, but through the mechanism of the eurozone, the sub-group of 12 (out of 25) EU nations who use the common currency. They propose that the Commission, the EU's executive arm, reform itself and come up with some new ideas. And they suggest drafting a shorter, simpler and clearer new Treaty (shrinking from the word Constitution) to help define the EU's future progress.

It is as if Moses had come down from Mount Sinai with just two Commandments, one saying, "Be nice to one another," and the other, "Have a nice day."

The Friends of Europe heavyweights who drafted the report "Getting Europe Back on Track" include Pascal Lamy, former EU commissioner and now head of the World Trade Organization; Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister; Giuliano Amato, former Italian prime minister; Javier Solana, former secretary-general of NATO and now the EU's diplomatic chief; Peter Mandelson, EU Trade commissioner; Paul Revray, Europe director of the Trilateral Commission, Joachim Bitterlich, former German national security adviser, and so on.

They are the custodian idealists of the great European dream, the true believers in ever more Europe and ever more integration, the Euro-elite who have helped steer the grand project forward -- until it faltered this year. And they beat their breasts and mourn at the way they have lost touch with people they were supposed to be leading into the bright new Euro-tomorrow.

"In the hectic journey through enlargement and the Constitution, we forgot the sovereign, the citizen, his trust and our credibility," writes Bitterlich.

"The EU is often perceived as part of this process of globalization that threatens us," notes Lamy.

"Today's politicians have lost all sense of idealism regarding the European integration project, and after a decade of raging inter-governmentalism, are driven essentially by naked nationalism," writes Revray.

"Few things have been as misdirected and counterproductive as all the talk about safeguarding some imaginary European social model. It has created the impression that change and globalization is something that is threatening and dangerous, and that the task of politics is to resist change. It has been truly damaging to Europe as a whole," writes Bildt.

Taken together, these gloomy analyses sound like a ruling class that has lost confidence in itself and in its mission. But the former Swedish prime minister then goes on to make a genuinely new and fresh contribution to the EU debate.

"We must understand that we are at the beginning of the creation of a new European economy in the context of a rapidly changing global economy. The stagnation in some of the central economies isn't the really interesting story at the moment -- the interesting story is the success of the radical reform policies initiated by Estonia a decade ago and recently reinvigorated by Slovakia. Over time, the success of these reforms, and the new growth opportunities they are creating, will influence all the other European economies," Bildt notes.

The reforms that have been adopted in these Eastern European countries include the flat tax, low corporation taxes, deregulated labor markets, a clear welcome to foreign investment -- an aggressive adoption of what French and German politicians sneer at as "the Anglo-Saxon agenda" of free markets and free trade.

But these are the kinds of reform that were supposedly adopted by the EU at their Lisbon summit five years ago, adopted but not enacted and never very seriously tried.

Peter Berry, who is not one of the aging grandees in the Friends of Europe group, but instead the much younger editor of the online journal EuropaWorld, says the real question is "whether Europe actually wants to be led at the present time at all?"

"We may have a Europe of the 25, but it is a Europe of 25 troubled and fractious countries, uncertain as to their future direction on almost all fronts," he suggests.

"In the absence of a clear, rational and coherent European perspective, member states are therefore dancing on the European stage to the tunes played by their electorates back home. Some look forward, others back; some embrace grand solutions, others the minimalist option. The major issues, the constitution, the economy, sustainable development, migration, foreign and security policy and now budgetary reform are themselves becoming, by proxy, a new set of European battlefields," Berry argues.

That is where Berry, speaking for the Europhile young generation, meets the older generation of the Friends. They both want to reinvigorate the Commission, and revive its traditional mission as custodian of the European idea and powerhouse for the planning and reform to drive it forward. That was the role the Commission played until the 1990s, when the nation states decided it had become too potent under Jacques Delors and it was time for the national governments to take over.

Even if adopted (and the national governments would not much like it), such a revival of the Commission would revive the old arguments about Brussels elitism and grand bureaucratic projects that have little public support or democratic legitimacy. The lesson of 2005 is that Europe's citizens do not want "more Europe," but simply prefer good jobs and schools and pensions and health care they can rely on.

Or as Commissioner Mandelson put it to the Friends of Europe: "The jobs and living standards argument for Europe no longer rings true." European voters no longer see the EU as guaranteeing the prosperity and security they have come to expect. Until they do, the EU will continue to falter.

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