Almotamar.net Project syndicate
- Europe today presents a contradictory picture. It is a land of peace, democracy, and the rule of law. It is also a land of prosperity: its economy is competitive, its currency strong, inflation is low, and its standards of living are among the highest in the world. Europeans benefit from very high levels of social protection, inexpensive, high-quality education, strict environmental standards, and excellent infrastructure. In addition, Europe has unmatched cultural diversity and great natural beauty. It all sounds like a utopian dream.
With its 500 million people and the world’s largest single market, Europe, even if not seen by the world as a real union, is still an economic giant. But politically it is a dwarf – and shrinking. Ours is a century of large states, and the further rise of China, India, the United States, and Japan will soon make the largest European powers look puny. Even today the three largest EU members barely manage to offset Europe’s loss of political weight, much less to stem the tide. Without a strong EU, this development will only intensify.
The world outside Europe is changing rapidly, and it won’t wait for Europeans mired in an agonizing process of self-discovery. The alternatives are clear: keep up or be left behind.
In America, despite the current obsession with Iraq, a strategic view is taking hold that defines the twenty-first century mainly in terms of the triad of China, India, and the US. Japan’s role as an American ally is viewed as a given. The relationship with Russia is placed somewhere between partnership and renewed rivalry, but Russia is not really seen as a strategic challenge. And, in strategic terms, the rest is silence – which applies also to Europe.
The bottom line for America is that while Europe no longer creates problems, for the foreseeable future, Europe, due to its lack of unity, will not be willing or able to contribute to solving the world’s problems. Europe’s involvement in NATO’s efforts to stabilize Afghanistan only emphasizes this ambiguity.
On the one hand, Europe’s role in Afghanistan is appreciated by the US, but on the other, it also exposes the Europeans’ weakness and the Alliance’s limited capabilities. While the US political elite has not written off NATO, expectations about its crisis-solving competence are fast being scaled down. This view of Europe as a negligible political entity is fully shared in Beijing, Moscow, and New Delhi.
This is the starting point at which a new generation of leaders is taking over the reins in the EU’s three largest member states. Gerhard Schröder, Jacques Chirac, and Tony Blair are history. In Germany, the government of Angela Merkel has been in power for one and a half years. Nicolas Sarkozy has just assumed the French presidency. Gordon Brown will soon take over as prime minister in the UK.
Within just a few weeks, this trio will be called on to make a vital decision on the future of the EU. That decision concerns the Constitutional Treaty and its prospects. What the new foundational document is called in the end is a minor point; what is essential for Europe’s future is that constitutional reform is revived and gives Europe a strong foundation. The question, then, is whether the new leaders, as early as next month, succeed in a new effort to adopt the vital institutional reforms that the enlarged Union requires.
The best way to proceed is to focus on the essentials. Part III of the blocked Constitutional Treaty is merely a compendium of the existing EU treaties, which – because these treaties will remain in force regardless of whether they are part of the new document – can be decoupled from the rest.
Part II of the stalled document, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, can be postponed. To be sure, this would be painful because, as the EU bureaucracies gain more authority, the EU’s democratic deficit will widen without clearly defined fundamental rights. If Part II is postponed, the European Court will have to define these fundamental rights for the time being. This is only a second-best solution, but it is better than nothing.
Part I of the treaty, however, is indispensable, as is the new voting procedure, with its “double majority” rule balancing the role of the states and the population. To reopen this part of the debate, and thus to allow a dilution of its substance, would be a historic failure and a major setback for Europe’s future. If this is the price of going ahead with the treaty, it is better to do nothing at all and bide one’s time.
The stakes are thus very high for Europe in the coming weeks. If the substance of the Constitutional Treaty is saved, Europe will increasingly develop into a global player. Only then will the transatlantic alliance also have a future. To be sure, this process will take time, and there will be other setbacks. But the fundamental direction will be correct, and there will be real cause for optimism. If, on the other hand, this attempt, too, should fail, or end in a lazy, useless compromise, Europe’s decline will accelerate and transatlantic relations will become increasingly turbulent.
It is now up to Merkel, Sarkozy, and Brown to prove – despite all the differences that may exist between them – that they understand the challenges that globalization poses for Europe: the EU member states will be able to defend their interests in the world of the twenty-first century only to the extent that the EU itself is strong.
Joschka Fischer was Germany's Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998 to 2005. A leader in the Green Party for nearly 20 years, he is now a visiting professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute of Human Sciences, 2007.