Sunday, March 25, 2007

The European Union turns 50 tomorrow, confounding skeptics and disappointing supporters at nearly every step along the way.

Leaders of the 27-nation alliance that some say put the “EU” in family feud gather today in Berlin for a two-day summit and anniversary celebration, one that predictably has provoked its own public squabbles about politics, God and the future of the continent.

The party is taking place in tandem with just the latest round of soul-searching for the European Union, divided over whether and when to revive a stalled drive for a continental constitution and over who should be invited to join in the future. Critics calls the current funk a sign of deeper rot, while EU partisans say the confusion is just business as usual in Brussels.

Jose Manuel Barroso, who heads the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said the European Union is the victim of its single greatest success — making major-power conflict unthinkable on the continent that sparked two global wars in the first half of the 20th century.

“Sixty years of peace means that the image of the EU as a bastion against war is losing its resonance,” Mr. Barroso said last week.

John Bruton, the EU ambassador to Washington and former Irish prime minister, calls the European Union “the world’s greatest peace process.”

Not only is war between the major Western powers now a distant memory, he said in an interview last week, but still-antagonistic countries in regions such as the Balkans are far less likely to resort to arms, knowing it will kill their chances for EU membership.

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic whose EU hopes are years, if not decades, in the future, is pursuing internal economic, legal and political reforms today just to keep its hopes alive, new Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said last week.

“Europe is not the aim in and of itself,” he said. “European values are the aim.”

Emotional challenge

But Mr. Bruton said the EU’s biggest challenge in the next 50 years may not be political, but emotional. Polls show that while many Europeans are grateful for the economic and political benefits delivered through the European Union, few love it as an institution.

“We will never take away the sense of ‘Frenchness’ or ‘Germanness,’ but I think a European Union identity is something every citizen should instinctively feel,” he said. “Right now, that is not true.”

In fact, “Euro-skepticism” is one of the dozens of terms introduced into political discourse by the bureaucratic behemoth of Brussels. The feeling, especially strong in countries such as Britain, is rooted in a feeling that the EU’s elite have gotten too far ahead of their own constituents, pursuing not just economic reforms, but a more grandiose program to build a “United States of Europe.”

EU leaders are still dealing with the shock of the rejection of the proposed EU constitution by voters in France and the Netherlands two years ago, putting on ice ambitious plans to create a new EU president, a permanent foreign service and other changes.

Still, the European Union has been defying predictions of institutional gridlock and imminent collapse since the leaders of six Western European powers — France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — signed the Treaty of Rome creating the European Economic Community on March 25, 1957.

Ostensibly an economic accord, the EEC was a political creature from its very birth, Mr. Bruton acknowledged, a way to get beyond the continent’s bloody past and pursue a “European project” to rebuild the region’s influence in the world.

With no blueprint or precedent in political history, the loose economic alliance has been transformed all out of recognition, the world’s largest free-trade bloc with 490 million people in 27 countries from the Atlantic to the border with Russia.

Members include the democratic governments of Spain, Portugal and Greece, all of which were dictatorships before joining, seven countries that once belonged to the Warsaw Pact, and three members — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — that once were part of the Soviet Union itself.

The European Union — the name was changed formally with the 1993 Treaty of Maastricht — issues its own currency, runs its own central bank, conducts foreign policy, boasts a supreme court and a parliament, and is a major player in such international issues as the Iranian nuclear standoff and the World Trade Organization talks.

It is estimated that more than two-thirds of the laws adopted by EU countries now simply ratify directives passed down from Brussels.

“Europe must be very proud of what it has done,” Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said during a Washington visit last week. “It is a unique situation, the only one where people gave up sovereignty for the greater good.”

“For us Greeks, it is very simple. We believe in more Europe, not less.”

Dissenting views

That last sentiment is not universally shared.

The popular rejection of the constitution was a symptom of far deeper doubts, EU critics contend.

Opinion polls show that Europeans themselves are divided over the benefits of EU membership and over the ambitions of its more aggressive partisans to strengthen the powers of Brussels. Many say the European Union as an organization is still struggling to cope with the dozen new Central and East European countries that have joined the bloc in the past three years.

The new entrants have altered the balance of power in Brussels, long driven by the Franco-German “engine.” Poland and many other former Soviet satellites take a much more skeptical approach to Russia, Europe’s leading energy supplier, making it difficult to fashion a coherent EU approach to Moscow.

An EU-wide poll taken by Eurobarometer in December found that 53 percent of Europeans believed membership in the European Union was a “good thing,” down from 71 percent in 1991.

Support varied wildly in individual countries, from 78 percent in Ireland to 36 percent in Austria and 34 percent in Britain. Only 46 percent of those polled had a positive image of the union, again with Britain at the bottom of the 27-nation list at 28 percent.

Although EU-wide economic growth actually outpaced that of the United States at the end of 2006 for the first time in five years, just a third of those polled across the continent said they believed that “things are going in the right direction” for the European Union.

Happy birthday?

Big fights loom on the horizon, from a drive to reform the EU’s hugely expensive farm protections to the divisive question of whether to admit Turkey as the bloc’s first Muslim-majority member.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the hostess of today’s Berlin birthday celebration, had hoped to use the event to bring a little more unity to the union. But the Berlin Declaration, the event’s “birthday card,” intended as a ringing new EU mission statement, has generated its own divisions.

Declaration drafters had to water down a reference to the constitution, which Mrs. Merkel strongly supports but which proved too controversial to some members. The draft statement calls for “renewing … the common foundation on which the European Union is built” by 2009.

The declaration also fudges on efforts by some members to include a mention of God in the final language, a debate many pointed to as a sign of the division between Europe’s elites and its populations and between its more secular Western half and the more religious East.

The draft, which still must be approved by EU leaders today, instead cites Europe’s “Judeo-Christian roots” as one part of the “foundation of our political family.”

c James Morrison contributed to this report.

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