- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

VIENNA. — The failure of the European Constitutional Treaty in referenda in the Netherlands and France last year led to a determination among European leaders that the time had come for a “moment of reflection.” That moment is with us still and forms the backdrop for German Marshall Fund’s conference here.

As an American in Europe, it struck me that the best contribution I could make would be to try to offer a candid assessment of where the project of European integration stands as of now. What, then, is Europe in 2006 as distinct from its component parts, the member-states? In what senses can we say that “Europe” exists? We begin with the relatively simple matter of geography — Europe’s place on the map. This sense of Europe is old and steeped in history. But even in the case of geography, we quickly arrive at matters that remain subjects of contention. Specifically, what are the boundaries of Europe? During the Cold War, “Europe” was largely a term for Western Europe. That’s no longer so. Europeans have settled the question of whether Central and Eastern Europe are also included. They are. So too, the Balkans — scene of the most murderous post-communist action — are now surprisingly far along the path of integration.

We now face such exotic questions as how “European” we should construe Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus to be. There is no consensus on these questions. But the record is clear that Europeans have come to think of the question of the geography of Europe as inclusive rather than exclusive, which has been a huge benefit for the people included.

There is a European economy as well. There can be no doubt that European integration from the time of the coal and steel community forward has been a huge benefit to the material prosperity of Europeans. The common market, regulatory harmonization, the creation of the euro, though none singly without precedent, cumulatively have created a truly continental economy.

Notwithstanding integration, though, national governments still matter hugely to economic performance on their territories. It is but a consequence of policy choices that Ireland has boomed and France and Germany haven’t. Many of the EU newcomers from the East have adopted policies substantially more market-friendly than those in Western Europe and are reaping higher rates of economic growth. Perhaps their example will serve as a stimulus to economic reform in Western Europe.

Europe is also a zone of peace and common identity. But we need to be careful here. The peace is real, but some of the more enthusiastic supporters of European integration imagined or hoped for the emergence of a post-national European identity, which would entail a sense of “Europeanness” supplanting that one’s sense of self as a Frenchman, a German or an Italian. What is emerging in Europe instead is a transnational European identity, one that does not seek to eliminate the sense of self as Frenchman or Italian but rather to add a layer on top of it. The objective is the creation of a set of political and social circumstances in which the obligation one feels as French or Italian and as European do not conflict.

Without question, though, the sense of transnational identity (as well as post-national aspiration) is stronger among European elites than it is among European publics, however much European publics benefit in terms of peace, security and prosperity from the achievements of European integration.

This gap between elites and publics is serious. European leaders need to reconnect, even if the cost is a more divisive domestic politics. Specifically, while skepticism about European integration, especially enlargement, characterizes a significant element of European public opinion, the leading agents of elite opinion do not reflect that skepticism.

If European politics at the national level gave greater voice to respectable forms of skepticism, the result would be a more honest dialogue about where matters stand and where Europe should be going. I, for one, can’t imagine that the result of such a dialogue would be a European democratic process that produced the political will to break up the EU and return to the days of national rivalry and the risk of war. More likely, Europeans will want Europe to go forward, though perhaps at a slower pace. Then again, elites should ask how quickly Europe is moving forward now given the rift between elite and public opinion.

Finally, the Europe of today exists as a matter of shared aspiration with regard to the Europe of tomorrow. The point of Europe’s “perpetual peace” is that it is not a steady state which, once achieved, cannot be undone; rather, it is a constant and ongoing act of creation. What makes it so robust is precisely its character as a freely willed decision of free people.

A European aspiration appropriate to this “moment of reflection,” then, would be a Europe that is well-governed at home and a responsible international actor capable of limited but effective intervention abroad. This need not be the final European aspiration, but it’s the right place to start.

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