Birth of a nation?
IF EUROPEANS no longer feel that “ever closer union” is needed to avert war, what new project might unite them? For many European leaders the answer is obvious: the EU must strive to become a global power. In his opening address as president of Europe's constitutional convention in 2002, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a long-serving former president of France, laid out his hopes: “If we succeed in 25 or 50 years...Europe's role in the world will have changed. It will be respected and listened to, not only as the economic power it already is, but as a political power which will talk on equal terms to the greatest powers on our planet.”
The constitution drawn up by Mr Giscard d'Estaing and his collaborators tries to advance this ambition. If and when it is ratified, the EU will have a “foreign minister” in charge of his own diplomatic corps. The constitution also commits the EU to the “progressive framing of a common defence policy”. The British and other nation-staters protest that all this sounds more impressive than it really is. The foreign minister will simply be a co-ordinator with a fancy title who will have no power to over-rule national foreign policies. Decisions about troop deployment will remain in the hands of national governments.
But the symbolism of choosing titles such as foreign minister and president for the EU's senior officials is both deliberate and significant. In foreign policy, as in so many other areas, the EU's powers tend to build up through a series of small steps, not in one massive leap. Ben Bot, the Dutch foreign minister, reflects that only 20 years ago EU ministers felt it would have been too controversial to have a formal discussion of foreign and security policy.
Yet even as Mr Giscard d'Estaing and his conventioneers laid out their plans for “ever closer union” in foreign affairs, events outside the conference chamber mocked their aspirations. The constitutional convention took place against the backdrop of bitter European divisions about the war in Iraq. With an anti-war camp led by France and Germany and a pro-war camp led by Britain and backed by Spain, Italy and Poland, the EU's hopes of a “common” foreign policy looked forlorn.
The Iraq dispute was disturbing not just because of its bitterness, but also because it revealed that the EU was split between two competing visions. One of them, most closely identified with France, is known as “multipolarity” or “Euro-nationalism”. In essence, it calls for the EU to become an independent actor on the world stage to counterbalance the United States. The other vision, most closely identified with Britain, is known as Atlanticism. This holds that the “western alliance”, forged in the cold war, remains vital today. Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister, argued that trying to build up Europe as a counterweight to the United States was a profoundly misguided and dangerous idea.
The very fact that the EU was divided over Iraq might have been expected to dishearten the Euro-nationalists, and initially it did. But many Euro-nationalists ultimately took heart from the Iraq crisis, for beneath the divisions between European governments they saw a fundamental unity in the anti-war sentiment of the European public. For example, although Spain's then prime minister, José María Aznar, supported the war, only 4% of the Spanish public agreed with him, and his party lost power at the subsequent election, albeit after a terrorist attack on Madrid just before polling day. Even in Britain a large majority of the public seemed opposed to the war.
After a slew of anti-war demonstrations across Europe on February 15th 2003, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former French finance minister and passionate pro-European, proclaimed: “On Saturday February 15th, a new nation was born on the street. This new nation is the European nation.” Mr Giscard d'Estaing also felt that the anti-war movement marked the birth of a “European public consciousness”.
The emotions stirred up by an impending war, although powerful, can also be ephemeral. But those who believe that there is enough common ground in time to underpin a united European approach to world affairs have other evidence to draw upon. A poll carried out in Europe for the German Marshall Fund of the United States earlier this year found widespread support for the idea that: “The European Union should become a superpower like the United States.” Not unexpectedly, 83% of French respondents and 73% of Germans agreed, but so did over 50% in countries whose governments had supported the Iraq war, such as the Netherlands, Poland and even Britain (see chart 1).
Support for the idea of Europe as a superpower does not necessarily translate into support for automatic opposition to the United States. Asked if they supported European superpower status to “compete more effectively with the US”, only 36% of French and 37% of British respondents agreed. Support in Germany and the Netherlands was even weaker. But large majorities in most of the countries supported European superpower status in order “to co-operate more effectively with the US” in dealing with international problems.
This points to a less aggressive version of Euro-nationalism which holds that Europe alone is too small to be able to influence a world soon to be dominated not only by the United States but also by India and China, superpowers with populations of over a billion each. As Danuta Hubner, the new European commissioner from Poland, puts it: “We should not forget that collectively we make up only about 11% of the world's population.” Seen in that light, Europeans need to group together to defend common interests.
Euro-nationalists believe that there is a distinctive European approach to the world that needs to be defended. Europeans, they argue, are more individualist than Asians but more collectivist than Americans. Opinion polls show that Europeans are generally less religious than Americans, less inclined to believe that war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice, and more inclined to think that success or failure in the world is determined by luck or social forces rather than personal effort. Such attitudes have political consequences. They mean that domestically Europeans are more likely to support a “European social model” with generous welfare provision; and that internationally Europeans are more inclined to express support for multilateral institutions such as the United Nations or the International Criminal Court. Euro-nationalists hope that in time an EU foreign policy can develop on the model of European trade policy, where the EU already acts as a block and is taken just as seriously as America.
Yet there are strong reasons for doubting that an attempt to turn the EU into a political superpower will provide it with a fresh impetus. Indeed, it is just as likely to end up splitting the Union.
True, the opinion polls do suggest a degree of consensus across the EU about the desirability of aspiring to superpower status. But that raises the awkward question of how to deal with the existing superpower. Undoubtedly discussion of the United States in France on the one hand and Britain and Poland on the other has a different quality to it. British left-wingers may rail against “that cowboy Bush”, but they do not believe that America represents some sort of existential threat to their country, whereas in France that feeling permeates the debate.
Although some leading European politicians seized on the anti-war demonstrations to claim the birth of a European nation, others were much more sceptical. Jacques Delors, for example, dismisses the polling evidence as much less significant than the history and the deep structures which he believes bind Britain to America. Similarly, Hans-Gert Pöttering, the leader of the dominant centre-right group in the European Parliament, has said that: “Defining Europe in anti-American terms could destroy Europe.”
There is also the uncomfortable reality that rivalries between EU countries are often at least as serious as any rift across the Atlantic. Indeed, the European split over Iraq was arguably as much about a struggle for control of the EU as it was about Iraq itself. The Spanish government's decision to align itself with Britain and the United States reflected Mr Aznar's belief that his country had too often allowed itself to be dominated by a Franco-German axis within Europe. And when Jacques Chirac, the French president, lashed out at central European countries that supported the war, saying they had “missed a good opportunity to shut up”, he was reflecting French dismay at the realisation that in the newly enlarged EU the French cockerel might no longer rule the roost.
But it is not just rivalries within the EU that will continue to bedevil efforts to turn the Union into a coherent global power. It is also Europeans' continued ambivalence about the whole idea of exercising power on the world stage. Probe a little deeper into the apparent support in the opinion polls for the EU becoming a superpower, and it quickly becomes more ambiguous.
For example, Europeans are distinctly reluctant to spend more money on defence, and markedly unenthusiastic about using military force. The 2003 poll for the German Marshall Fund asked respondents whether they thought that in some conditions war was necessary to obtain justice. In America 55% agreed strongly that it was, but in France and Germany only 12% felt that way. These public attitudes are reflected in EU countries' low levels of deployable military force compared with America.
Some Europeans argue that the EU's opportunity lies in becoming a new sort of superpower, using economic weight and skilful diplomacy as a form of “soft power”. They point out that the Union has managed to bring about deep changes in the behaviour of its neighbours through EU enlargement. The carrot of EU membership is an extraordinarily effective foreign-policy tool; one Brussels official jokes that: “Once a country applies to join the EU, it becomes our slave.”
But it cannot be applied to countries without any European connections, and there is nothing much else in the toolbox. Eurocrats like to note, for example, that the EU spends far more on foreign aid than does the United States; but all the money that the Union has thrown at the Middle East, and the Palestinian Authority in particular, has done little to give the Europeans any leverage there.
Observers from outside Europe can sometimes shine a cruel light on the EU's pretensions. Max Boot, an American neo-conservative at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, does not mince his words: “By the traditional measures of power, Europe is in decline: economic growth is anaemic, military budgets are in free fall, the fertility rate is declining.” He is putting his finger on a real problem. It is not just that Europeans are divided and reluctant to spend on military force; it is also that Europe's share of the world economy is shrinking as the United States constantly outstrips European growth and the Asian economies surge ahead.
Slow economic growth in the EU not only makes it harder to project European power. It also threatens the second pillar of the European project: the promise that European unity will deliver prosperity.
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