- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

John Bruton, former prime minister of Ireland, has been the European Union ambassador to the United States since November 2004. He spoke last week with reporter David R. Sands at the EU’s Washington headquarters about the bloc’s past, present and future.

Q. What do you consider the EU’s biggest achievement in its first 50 years?

A. It’s important to say at the outset that the European Union was conceived as a political project. The founders of the organization attempted to harness closer economic cooperation as a way to reconcile nations that had long been warring with one another. Certainly, other factors contributed to peace and security in Western Europe, including the alliance with the United States, but the EU was always seen as a political force for peace.

I think the biggest recent triumph of the EU has to be the steady process of enlargement. We went from six nations to 10 to 15 to 27 today, and at all stages, this was done with the unanimous support of the existing members. When you consider that each round of expansion means a dilution of power for existing members and a larger sharing of financial resources, that is quite an impressive achievement.

And simply by the fact of its existence, the EU has made historically difficult relationships between neighbors easier to manage — and not just with France and Germany. My own country, Ireland, has long had an inherently unequal and difficult relationship with Great Britain, but when we both joined the European Union, that all changed. We were equals within the EU, and the British actually found Ireland could be a useful ally in the context of discussions with other EU members. …

It is not that the EU was necessarily involved in solving these ancient disputes. But the mere fact of the union’s existence radically changed the context in which they can be addressed.

Q. What do you consider the greatest challenge or shortcoming of the first 50 years?

A. Certainly, we still have work to do in completing the internal market. There are still sectors of the EU economy — notably energy — that are not fully open. We still have restrictions on the free movement of labor, although those will be gradually removed in the coming years. With so many new members joining the EU, it’s not surprising to me that you do have controversies of low-wage pressures and “Polish plumbers,” but I think people are starting to adjust.

Q. Many see the stalled drive to adopt an EU constitution as a sign of deeper organizational and political troubles. Do you agree?

A. I don’t see us facing a “midlife crisis,” as some have put it, but it is important to say that the EU, if it is to truly succeed, has to be an emotional reality, as well as a legal reality for Europeans. The EU can’t be just treaties and rules. There also has to be a sense that we are building something in common. Every day, I think we move closer to that sense, but it remains a work in progress. …

The proposed constitution came so quickly after the last round of enlargement that I think many people simply weren’t comfortable with the idea. I think the EU leadership perhaps got too far out in front of the people of Europe and this is a problem we have to resolve.

But I also think the passage of time will change the popular perception [of the constitution]. Despite the enlargement fears, the EU economy now is actually growing faster as a whole than [that of] the United States. I think if we have another vote on the constitution today in France or the Netherlands, there might be a “yes” vote.

Q. Where do you see the European Union 50 years from today?

A. I think it will be a group in which any European country that wants to belong will be in the union, including Turkey and Russia, if they so choose. Whether they make that choice at the end of the day will be up to them.

I think the EU will survive, but the reality is any human institution can come to an end unless there is a constant effort to develop and sustain it. I certainly don’t see the nations of Europe fading away because of the EU, or the end of disagreements within the union that have always been there. I don’t think politics will be abolished in 50 years, and there will probably as much politics within the EU as there is today.

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