What Is Europe to Do?

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Tobias Schwarz/Reuters
Herman Van Rompuy, the first permanent president of the European Council, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlin, January 13, 2010

Some of our American friends worry that our Christian civilization in Europe (you must remind us about that sometime) is about to be overwhelmed by Islamic hordes—the ramparts of Vienna stormed at last. Others become a little fretful perhaps that we Europeans have forgotten what one has to do in order to matter to the world.

The hope in Brussels is that this may have now ended. Horse-trading there has produced the previously little-known names of the first permanent president of the European Council (Herman Van Rompuy) and of a theoretically powerful high representative for foreign and security policy (Catherine Ashton)—Europe’s first foreign minister, in tabloid-speak. These jobs are the progeny of the Lisbon Treaty and some people believe that they will represent the answer at last to the question that Henry Kissinger says he never asked: “If I want to call Europe to find out what it thinks, what is the telephone number?” Is the answer now more clear? I wish the chosen appointed well, but I am not sure that Europe has suddenly discovered a single voice. Certainly, Mr. Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton will want to take an early look at the state of the transatlantic alliance. When they look west, what will they see?

First, what flourishes largely unheralded is the marketplace—to the benefit of both sides of the ocean and of the rest of the world too. The Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University regularly assembles the figures for the flow of trade and investment between America and Europe. The US and Europe remain by a long way each other’s most important commercial partner. Before the financial crash and the onset of the recession the transatlantic economy was generating about $2.5 trillion in total commercial sales each year.

Some think that the commercial ties could be stronger still if only we could negotiate an Atlantic Free Trade Area. I rather doubt the value of trying such an endeavor. Most of the impediments to further trade flows are not tariffs but regulatory issues that need to be tackled one at a time by agencies that are sometimes quasi-independent of government. Consider, for example, how long it took to negotiate a pretty unsatisfactory open skies agreement governing air traffic between America and Europe. European politicians tend to take the success of our commercial relationship with the US for granted. When they go to Washington they look for other things, above all perhaps the assurance that they still matter, that they are still loved, that the US gives a fig about what they have to say about the world’s many problems.

It is incorrect to argue that our neu-rotic “amour propre” has grown because of Europe’s weakness in relation to the US. We were never more weak than in the years after World War II …

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