Will Europe never be Europe because it is becoming Europe?

To most speakers of the English language this sentence must look like nonsense or, at best, a deliberately absurd illustration in a textbook of linguistic philosophy. Yet to initi ates of the inner temple of what is called “The European Debate” it is both comprehensible and vitally important. You just need to insert four different senses of the word “Europe.” The question then reads: Will the current European Union of fifteen states (Europe, sense 1) never attain the long-dreamed-of final condition of coherent political unity (Europe, sense 2) because it is now committed to including most other states on the geographical continent of Europe (sense 3)? However, one school among the theologians of the inner temple proposes an alternative exegesis, in which the last part reads, more pessimistically, “because it is reverting to the bad old ways of competing nation-states in pre-1945 Europe” (sense 4).*

Somewhere around 3 AM on the morning of Monday, December 11, 2000, inside the vast concrete slab of the Acropolis conference center in Nice, where exhausted leaders of the European Union were trying to conclude their nego tiations on the outcome of the EU’s latest “intergovernmental conference,” the Belgian prime minister was holding out for more votes for Romania. Why? Well, if in a future, expanded EU Belgium’s old rival the Netherlands was going to have more “weighted v otes” in the EU’s Council of Ministers than Belgium, because it has a larger population, then Romania (which has 23 million people to the Netherlands’ 16 million) should certainly have more votes than the Netherlands.

To longstanding observers of t he EU, it was no surprise that the supposedly grown-up leaders of fifteen of the world’s most prosperous democracies were behaving like a bunch of schoolkids squabbling over the board game Diplomacy. This was Europe (sense 1), after all.1 What was surprising was that they were squabbling over votes for Romania. And Lithuania. And Cyprus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovenia.

Weeks later, when clever diplomats had finally managed to agree what their prime ministers and foreign ministers ought to have agreed in the early hours of Monday, December 11, we could download from the European Union Web site a legal text that will be known as the Nice Treaty.2 Among other things, this spells out exactly how many “weighted votes” in the Council of Ministers, how many commissioners in the European Commission, how many members of the European Parliament, and how many judges in the European Court of Justice each state is entitled to have in a future European Union of twenty-seven member states.

Chaotic, undignified, and badly chaired by the French president, Jacques Chirac, the Nice summit was nonetheless a symbolic and psychological breakthrough to bringing the formerly communist countries of the “other Europe” into the European Union. Eleven years after the velvet revolutions of 1989, the EU seemed at last to have understood what 1989 meant. The word “moving” is not one that I would normally ass ociate with EU summits, but it was moving to see the foreign minister of Poland, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski—veteran resister, survivor of both Auschwitz and Stalinist prisons—surrounded by a throng of television cameras and journalists in Nice, as h is country at last prepares to take its place in the European orchestra.

The EU now has a clearly stated aim of bringing the first post-communist candidate countries in by the time of the next elections to the European Parliament, in 2004. Of cours e, much can still happen to delay this. There will be a huge argument about whether Polish farmers can benefit from subsidies under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy—one of the traditional advantages of EU membership. According to the autumn 2000 < i>Eurobarometer survey of European public opinion, 50 percent of those asked in France and Austria were opposed to enlargement, and 43 percent in Germany.3
(Austrians and Germans fear an influx of che ap East European labor taking their jobs, Germans think they’ll have to pick up the bill for enlargement, and the French worry about a further loss of French influence over the EU.) Still, it is a reasonable guess that by 2005 we will have an EU of at lea st twenty member states, and by 2010 of twenty-five states, with Bulgaria and Romania perhaps straggling in a little later, to make up the full Nice complement of twenty-seven states and nearly 500 million people.

That’s not the end of it. In an ex traordinarily bold move, the EU has formally accepted Turkey—66 million people, largely Islamic, and mainly in Asia—as the twenty-eighth candidate. (However, no seats or “weighted votes” were assigned to it in Nice, and no negotiations on joinin g the EU will begin until it has met the political pre-conditions for membership, including respect for human and minority rights.) Three indubitably European countries, Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland, may finally decide that being outside the club is m ore uncomfortable than being in. Albania, post-Milosevic Serbia, and all the other constituent parts of former Yugoslavia are now bent on joining, which brings the tally to thirty-six—or thirty-eight if Kosovo and Montenegro were to come in as indepe ndent states. That would make Moldova number thirty-nine.


Most countries in Europe want to be in the EU for several reasons. They believe its single market, with its vast demand for goods and services, will bring them major long-term econom ic benefits, as it has to the current members. Looking at the experience of countries that joined the EU in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Ireland, Portugal, and Greece, they may hope for some direct subsidies from the EU budget—that is, effectively, from richer European states. Beyond this, however, is a deep desire to be recognized as fully belonging to the European family. While for hard military security they look to membership in the other main trans-European organization, NATO, they also believe that membership in this community of shared European law and institutionalized solidarity will enhance their own security—against Russia, their neighbors, and perhaps even against themselves.

Someday, if all goes well, perhaps fifteen or twen ty years from now, the European Union may have to consider applications from the post-Soviet triangle of Ukraine, Belarus, and—most difficult of all—Russia. This would make a putative Union of between forty and forty-two states, and double the c urrent EU population of 375 million. Many in Western Europe would like to say “never” to these last three. In a recent conversation I had in Brussels with one European commissioner, he referred to the Polish-Ukrainian border as the Union’s “final frontier.” But Europe’s eastern question will not go away, especially after Poland has become an EU member. Even a final “no” from today’s EU could never, in fact, be final. And then, of course, there will be Ruthenia—having achieved independence from Ukrain e—as number forty-three.4

I believe that the question “Could Ruthenia be the forty-third member of the European Union?,” fantastical though it sounds, is one that Europeans need to address. I f you’ve accepted twenty-seven, why not thirty-five or forty-three? But it is hardly a practical question for the next decade, and what is already resolved in solemn treaty5 is fantastic enough. The histo rian Jacques Le Goff once observed that Europe has had a name for twenty-five centuries, but is still in the design stage. Now, for the first time ever in European history, most states on the European continent are freely committed to designing, by consent, a non-hegemonic order for most of Europe.

The one small remaining problem is: How? How do we achieve something that Europe has never managed before, nor any comparable concatenation of states on any other continent? How on earth can this thing work with twenty-seven member states when it barely works with fifteen? For at issue in what the French alluringly call l’après-Nice—making it sound rather like après-ski—is not just enlargement. It is also the declining efficiency and fragile legitimacy of the present EU. “We can’t go on like this!” exclaimed the British prime minister, Tony Blair, at dawn on the fifth day of a summit that was meant to last just two and a half days. “They are sick! sick! sick!” a very se nior EU official told me in Brussels, characterizing the EU’s three main political institutions: Commission, Council, and Parliament.

As for the legitimacy of the EU, that has been a growing concern ever since the treaty agreed on at the Ma astricht summit in 1991—the one that resolved on a single European currency—was rejected in a referendum in Denmark, nearly voted down in the British Parliament, and accepted by a majority of just 51.05 percent in a referendum in France, the cou ntry that more than any other regards Europe as its own. The average turnout in elections to the European Parliament has sunk from more than 60 percent in 1979 to less than 50 percent in 1999—and that figure was only achieved because voting is compul sory in four member states. In Britain, fewer people voted in the European elections than did in the voyeuristic TV spectacle Big Brother (for which viewers had to choose a contestant to be dropped). The latest Eurobarometer survey of public opinion suggests that just 48 percent of the Germans and the French currently think EU membership is “a good thing” for their country. Populist critics decry the EU as a remote, unaccountable enterprise of technocratic elites—“Brussels Eurocrats”—constantly interfering in everyday life, telling people what size of apples they may eat, how large road signs must be, and that bananas must be straight. In the inner temple of officials and experts, the nervous talk is of insufficient “transparency” and a “democratic deficit.”


In response to this triple challenge—enlargement, efficiency, and legitimacy—European politicians such as Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, and the Finnish and Belgian p rime ministers were already, before Nice, canvassing their ideas for the future of the EU.6 Now, in a declaration appended to the Nice Treaty, EU leaders have formally called for “a deeper and wider debat e about the future of the European Union” involving “all those reflecting public opinion, namely political, economic and university circles, representatives of civil society, etc.” This process is to culminate in another intergovernmental conference in 2004, leading to yet another treaty.

Although the word “constitution” is not mentioned in that declaration, most of those involved accept that this is a constitutional debate. There is a serious proposal to convoke, under EU auspices, something like a European version of the Philadelphia convention of 1787.7 In all previous rounds of EU soul-searching, European integration was assumed to be an open-ended progress toward the “ever closer union” evoked but not defined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. It was a journey to an unknown destination. Now many—though not all—European leaders feel the time has come to try to describe the destination; to give shape to what the French call the finalit&#23 3; européenne. In short, Europe is summoned to its Philadelphia.

The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright reportedly once said that to understand the European Union you have to be either a genius or French. Yet even a F rench genius—a commodity with which European institutions have traditionally been well supplied—has difficulty explaining the EU today.

Applicant countries are faced with some 80,000 pages—the exact length depends on the language&#1 51;of the so-called acquis communautaire, described by the British EU specialist Timothy Bainbridge as “the whole range of principles, policies, laws, practices, obligations and objectives that have been agreed or that have developed within the Eur opean Union,” and including fifty years’ worth of treaties, with all their subsequent revisions, renumberings, and legal and bureaucratic elaborations.8 EU documents are peppered with acronyms and with sh orthand terms, often referring to the agreeable diplomatic watering hole where a particular deal was struck: “Gymnich meetings” and “Petersberg tasks” (after castles in Germany), “Villa Marlia procedure” (after a villa in Italy), and so on.

Any att empt to discern a clear division between executive, legislature, and judiciary, on the US model, is doomed. For example, the three central institutions of the original European Economic Community—the European Commission, whose members are nominated b y the EU governments and confirmed by the European Parliament; the Council of Ministers, which brings together political and diplomatic representatives of member states; and the directly elected European Parliament—are all essential parts of the comp lex process by which the EU produces European law that takes precedence over national legislation. In this sense, they are all the European legislature.

Equally, any attempt to characterize a single “Union method” is frustrated by the fact that, since the Maastricht treaty, the European Union (as it then became) has had two other so-called “pillars,” beside the “first pillar” of the old Economic Community. The second pillar, for a Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the third, for Justice and Home Affairs, both work by rather different methods, and generally rely on more direct cooperation between national governments—“intergovernmentalism” in the jargon.

The simile of “pillars” was supposed to conjure up the image of a classical Greek temple. However, when you notice that the pillars don’t match, and when you take into account all the other major buildings and outhouses—the Economic and Monetary Union (responsible for the euro currency, formally inside the first pillar, but with its own independent European Central Bank in Frankfurt), the Economic and Social Committee in Brussels, the Court of Auditors and the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg, to name but a few—the result looks more like some higgledy-piggledy hilltop castle, with additions made in the style of the time by each succeeding generation: here a medieval wall, there a baroque tower, there again, a little gothick folly. Perhaps only Europe could have produced something so complex in just fifty years.

The traditional way to engage in “The European Debate” is to propose a set of changes to the “architecture” of this rambling castle, and crown the redesign with a catchy term or slogan. Thus Joschka Fischer advocates a “European Federation,” Jacques Chirac says we need “not a United States of Europe but a United Europe of States,” while Tony Blair’s motto is: “a superpower not a superstate.” There will be much more of this between now and 2004.

Instead, I shall make ten observations i n search of an argument.


The question of language is at once the most technical and the most fundamental. Today, the EU has eleven official languages. The formula for determining the resulting total of language combinations for interpr etation is ?so the present tally is 110. The European Parliament is already close to Babel. Even committee rooms have an amazing array of interpreters’ booths. About a quarter of the Parliament’s staff are in linguistic services, which include the transla tion of all documents. In 1999, a day’s full interpretation in the Council was estimated to cost 640,000 euros (about $500,000).

Making the optimistic assumption that the Czech Republic and Slovakia would agree that Czech does not need to be inter preted into Slovak, an EU of twenty-seven member states would have twenty-two languages, which, computing n2n, yields a combination total of 462. If interpretation were provided between them all, costs just in the Council would then be on the order of $1 million a day—and one should allow another $1 million for the Parliament. With thirty-five languages, there would be 1,090 permutations.

The obvious solution is to make English—currently spoken by at least 55 percent of EU-ropeans—the working language of the EU, like Latin in medieval Europe. The first difficulty with this is that the English (most inconsiderately) happen to speak English. Whereas medieval Latin was the language of nobody and everybody, the EU would be conferring a special privilege on the living, native language of one of its largest and most contrary member states. (I say “the English” advisedly. The English-speaking but less numerous and less Euroskeptic Scots, Welsh, and Irish woul d not, on their own, be such a problem.)

The second difficulty is that the French would anyway say “Non,” the Germans insist that German is the native tongue of the largest single group within the Union, and other European nations are prote ctive of their languages too. The bad reason for this linguistic protectionism is the defense of national prestige. The good reason is that it really is difficult to say exactly what you mean in another language. As Friedrich Schleiermacher observed, “Every language constitutes a partic-ular mode of thought, and what is thought in one language can never be repeated in another.”

Still more fundamental is the question whether you can conduct a participatory democracy in a foreign language and/or in twenty-two different languages. John Stuart Mill thought you could not. Countries like South Africa and India are trying. If the EU were just an international organization, then one might agree on, say, six working languages, as with the UN. We expect dip lomats to work in foreign languages. But elected politicians? Ordinary citizens? Democratic politics is not like business or diplomacy. It needs words with which people feel at home.


Meanwhile, what is “The European Debate”? It’s a dis cussion among a small group drawn from national elites. There is no European demos, or “We The People.” There are no truly European political parties. Existing attempts at trans-European newspapers, magazines, or television channels have little res onance. If I want to reach the widest European intellectual audience, the best way is to write an essay in The New York Review of Books. For a shorter commentary, it’s the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, or the painstaking placing of a piece in twenty different national papers; for TV, probably CNN or BBC World, rather than the consciously European Euronews or Arte.

The so-called European Debate takes a different form in different European countries, although one national debate can influence another. For example, Danish Euroskeptics are worried about the EU reducing their extremely generous social welfare provisions, while British Euroskeptics fear that the EU will impose Danish-s tyle welfare provisions on Britain’s deregulated economy. But British Euroskeptics still helped finance the Danish campaign to say “no” to the euro, in a referendum last autumn, and were heartened by its success.

Initiates of the European inner tem ple meet at conferences, read one another’s books and articles, correspond or e-mail, but this European “we” is a tiny proportion even of national elites. Officials working on a “white paper on European governance” for the European Commission are trying t o use the World Wide Web to generate wider debate on proposals for EU reform: a virtual Philadelphia. Some hope that the introduction of euro notes and coins across the entire eurozone in January 2002 will be a great spur to pan-European consciousness. We shall see. But for now, the question is whether we can even achieve a genuinely trans-European debate of elites.


Brussels—synonym for the EU, and self-styled capital of Europe—perfectly illustrates the gap between elites an d life “underneath, where the people are,” as Pope John Paul II once memorably put it.

Brussels is a place where highly sophisticated, multilingual men and women from the most diverse backgrounds—a French technocrat, a former governor of Hong Kong, a one-time student opponent of Franco—try to reconcile national interests and national ways of thinking with the pursuit of a larger, common interest. It is also the capital of a country that has almost fallen apart in the conflict between its French-speaking and Flemish (i.e., Dutch)-speaking parts, Wallonia and Flanders. French and Flemish schools and universities are entirely separate. French speakers in Flanders have no right to education in French, or to deal with the local administration in their native tongue. I was told of a case where the school bus taking French-speaking children across the frontier to school in Wallonia was not even allowed to stop in the Flemish village where the children lived. East European countries applying to join the EU would be severely criticized for such disregard of minority rights and—they would be told—European values.

Launching the “great debate” on the future of the European Union, in Brussels this March, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said that Belgium “might be considered as a model for Europe.”9 Indeed.


Whatever the trans-European elements in this debate, the nature of the “constitution al” treaty that emerges from the 2004 intergovernmental conference will depend on the balance of forces between national governments at that time. This will reflect everything from national leaders’ personal convictions and bilateral relations to domestic electoral calculations, pressure groups, backroom deals, and the competence or incompetence of their officials. Like the Nice Treaty, like all previous treaties in the history of the EU, the new one will be a snapshot of the balance between the contend-i ng parties on the night of the final agreement.

Traditionally, the argument has been swayed by France and Germany acting in concert. Now the Franco-German axis or “couple” is weakened: a fact conclusively confirmed by the frequency with which Frenc h and German leaders protest that it is not. Part of acknowledging what happened in 1989 is accepting that united Germany is bigger and richer than any other member state. At Nice, France succeeded in retaining formal parity with Germany in “weighted vote s” in the Council, despite the fact that Germany has 82 million inhabitants to France’s 59 million. But Germany’s larger population is reflected in another part of the complex voting formula10 and Germa ny has more seats than anyone else in the Parliament. It is often argued that the inclusion of Germany’s Central and East European neighbors in the EU will further strengthen Germany’s hand. Close economic ties and the political relationships that the Federal Republic has worked hard to develop with the countries to its east certainly point in this direction. Yet countries with painful memories of German domination will also be looking for other partners to counterbalance Germany’s strength. In any case, Germany is already primus inter pares.

The biggest single political fact in EU-rope today is that the Social Democratic chancellor and Green foreign minister of the Federal Republic (Bundesrepublik) of Germany are both arguing for a federal Europe. They suggest that the different powers exercised at the European, national, and state (i.e., German Land), or regional level should be clearly specified in a European constitution, with a clear emphasis on decentralization—something for which the German federal states (Länder) are also pressing. Just as others “think Europe” in a characteristically Dutch, or Spanish, or Italian way, so Germany’s leaders tend, as the Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato has noted, “to see the future of Europe as a kind of large Bundesrepublik.”11

France doesn’t know what to think, and is anyway paralyzed by the cohabitation of the Gaullist president Chirac a nd the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, who will probably stand against him in the presidential elections next year. Only then will the French position become clear—perhaps. If, as seems almost certain, Tony Blair is reelected this June, Brit ain must decide whether to join the eurozone, and hence take a more central part in the constitutional debate. We do not know what the Italian and Spanish governments will be in 2004.

At the moment, a majority of the medium-and smaller-sized EU mem ber states tend to prefer the traditional methods of the old European Economic Community, working through the triangle of Commission, Council, and Parliament. They suspect the “intergovernmentalism” currently favored by Britain, France, and Spain is a way for the big countries to make deals over their heads. (At a demonstration “for a federal constitution for Europe” on the margins of the Nice summit, I saw people holding up crude wooden figures rather like the “Guy” traditionally burned on a bonfire duri ng the British Guy Fawkes night. The hate figures were marked Inter-Gouvermentalismo and Inter-Gouvernementalismus.) Remarkably, the biggest country—Germany stands out as a protector of the smaller ones.

Then there is the fascin ating question of how the first wave of new members, and especially Spain-sized Poland, will behave. Having just regained their full sovereignty, after decades of subordination to the Soviet Union, will they—as English Euroskeptics hope—be leery of surrenderring it to the European Union? Or will they rather have the Euro-enthusiasm of the neophyte, believing—as the Irish tend to—that more European integration reinforces rather than threatens their independence? My own hunch is that, despite the best efforts of that Czech Thatcherite Václav Klaus, Central Europe will be more Irish than English.

There is, however, little point in trying to guess in 2001 what this complex international balance will be in 2004. What one can do is to sketch a range of possible and probable outcomes.


“Peace impossible, war improbable”—thus Raymond Aron famously summed up the cold war. Of the European Union in the early twenty-first century I would say: “unity impossible, collapse improbable.”

To be sure, “unity” means different things in different European languages. But almost nobody is now talking about a “United States of Europe” in the way they still were ten years ago. The growing number and diversity of mem ber states make such agreement ever less likely. The EU’s annual budget is pegged to spending less than 1.27 percent of the EU’s total GNP until 2006, and member states seem little inclined to give it more. Some federation!

Unity normally comes abo ut in the face of an external threat and/or with major external encouragement. Towering over the West European “founding fathers” of the European community in the 1950s, such as Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, and Alcide de Gasperi, there was a larger trini ty: Hitler, Stalin, and Truman. The horrific memory of World War II, the immediate Soviet threat, and very direct American encouragement: all catalyzed EU-rope’s bonding. Now the memory of war has faded. A threat from rogue states, international terrorism, or (allegedly) “the Islamic world” really does not compare with the old Soviet one. And, as we have seen in American responses to the proposed European Rapid Reaction Force, the United States is ambivalent.

“Collapse improbable” is a more risky s tatement. After all, every previous alliance, coalition, entente, empire, community, or monetary union of European states has collapsed sooner or later. The EU is different because of its intimate mesh of habitual cooperation and its many permanent, insti tutionalized mechanisms for resolving conflicts. This is no longer the Concert of Europe, meeting occasionally at a Congress of Vienna or Berlin. It is a permanent Orchestra of Europe, meeting and playing together all the time. Moreover, most previous arr angements collapsed because one European state tried to dominate the others—to be a hegemon. The EU, by contrast, is a systematically nonhegemonic order of European states. Germany is the biggest single power but it is not a hegemon.


Between impossible unity and improbable collapse comes the range of what is probable for the next five to ten years. The EU will not achieve anything like the US Constitution. Depending on the constellation in 2004, it might arrive at a quasi-constitu tional document that spells out—in a fashion that does not require a Ph.D. in European Studies to understand—who does what and why. (One suggestion is that the present palimpsest of treaties should be split in two: a fundamental, “constitutional” part, and the rest.) The alternative is a continuation of evolutionary pragmatism, with ever more bits and pieces being added onto the ramshackle castle, at the behest of different member states or European institutions, behind a large banner of merely declaratory coherence.

The Nice Treaty spells out the terms on which smaller groups of states can formally establish “enhanced cooperation” in chosen areas, as they have in practice done for years, on everything from abolishing border controls to monetary union. A second range of possibilities therefore concerns which individual states will be involved in what EU activity. At one end of this range is an imagined pattern, still favored by some French and German writers, of “concentric circles.” At the “hard core” is a circle of states, led by France and Germany, that are involved in every kind of EU activity, from a common currency to a common defense. Outer circles contain states, like Britain, Finland, or Poland, that are involved in only some. A t the other extreme would be a loose, polycentric pattern of numerous different groups of states getting together in “enhanced cooperation” for many different purposes—defense, environmental cooperation, monetary union—but without any clear cen tral circle. The former pattern risks collapse through the classic European reaction against a power or alliance striving for dominance; the latter is collapse.

The most likely outcome will fall somewhere in between. All member states, new a nd old, will be committed to certain core activities, mainly those of what used to be the European Economic Community: the single market, which aims to secure the free movement of goods, people, services, and capital across all member states (the E U’s “four freedoms”); competition policy, supposed to achieve a “level playing field” in this single market; trade negotiations on behalf of member states with the United States and the rest of the world; and so on. However, different circles of “enhanced cooperation” will overlap that central one. Thus, for example, Britain might be in the circle for defense but not the one, based on the Schengen Accord of 1985, for abolishing border controls. Austria or Finland might be in the latter but not the former. The most difficult question here is whether, in the long term, the single currency circle can be different from the core economic one. If it cannot, then planning needs to begin for a monetary union of more than twenty different nation-states. But how will that work?


More legitimacy, it is suggested, will come from more “transparency” of European institutions. Or from more democracy. Or through the EU visibly doing more things closer to the experience of ordinary people: contributing to cleaner beaches, improved roads, and so on. Or through it doing less of the intrusive regulation of everyday life that irritates people all over Europe. (A couple of years ago I heard an Italian professor complain how EU overregulation had spoiled traditional Italian wines and cheeses by specifying unnecessarily high standards of hygiene for their production. That Italian professor is now president of the European Commission, which is usually blamed, often unfairly, for such bureaucratic interference.)

I suspect the most important single key to enhanced legitimacy, and to the EU continuing to function with so many and diverse members, is for it to do less but do it better. Unfortunately, there is no single important institution in the Union with a clear interest in getting it to do less. The entire history of EU-ropean institutions has been one of adding on tasks, committees, supervisory roles, areas of involvement—all justified by the goals of achieving “ever closer union” or “doing more f or the citizens,” and agreed by member states on the basis that “you accept my add-on and I’ll accept yours.” The Nice Treaty, for example, creates a Social Protection Committee charged with “monitoring the social situation” in member states. A precise an d essential task?

In a European version of Parkinson’s Law, Commission, Council, and Parliament all create more work for themselves. Somewhere in those 80,000 pages of the acquis communautaire there is always a Treaty article or summ it resolution to justify a new project. But national governments are little better. Six-month national presidencies of the EU often launch a whole new theme: the Europe of culture, of sport, of the new economy, or whatever. (2001 is “European year of lang uages.”) Ever more frequent bilateral meetings of national leaders produce what EU Commissioner Neil Kinnock calls the “weekend assortment” of bilateral European initiatives. Last but not least there is the prevalent bad practice of national governments p utting the EU up to introducing measures that they regard as necessary but know will be unpopular at home—for example, expensive rules against pollution. Then they turn around and blame “Brussels.”

One suggested cure is a European Senate, or s econd chamber of the European Parliament, composed either of directly elected senators or of national parliamentarians, and meeting only for a few weeks a year. It should uphold the much-trumpeted principle of “subsidiarity”: that decisions should be take n at the lowest level consistent with effective action. Scrutinizing what the EU did against a constitutional or quasi-constitutional “catalog of competencies” (at the European, national, state, or regional level) it might say, for example: “The EU should not be involved in this matter of secondary education, but it should do more on that environmental question.” Unlike a European supreme court, this second chamber would have direct democratic legitimacy. But creating yet another institution is an odd way to start slimming down: adding in order to subtract. Would not it, too, fall prey to Euro-Parkinsonism?


On close inspection, Brussels does have a quiet, private drama: individuals of diverse and historically opposed nationalities dail y struggling to go beyond national interests and linguistically anchored national ways of thinking—in short, to be that mysterious thing, European. But it has no public drama. The nearest one gets to political theater is at important summits like Nic e, but they are largely reported as international diplomatic fencing matches. Larry Siedentop, author of the very stimulating Democracy in Europe, recalls how, attending a conference on the future of the EU last autumn, he noticed that the only thi ng anyone wanted to talk about in the coffee breaks was the US presidential election—dramatically hanging on those Floridian chads.

Every national polity has this public drama in some measure, and the US has it more than most. EU-rope does not. While quite a few Europeans will display the European flag on their vehicle registration plates, there is precious little else of inspiring symbolism, mystique, or what Walter Bagehot, in writing about the British constitution, called simply “magic.”

For most Europeans, EU-rope is boring. This grand ennui is a real danger to the whole project, and a limit to what it can become. Some trans-European consumer excitement may be generated next year by the introduction of euro notes and the cha nce to compare prices effortlessly across national borders. But the combination of mind-curdling institutional complexity and the missing trans-European public sphere make public drama or mystique most unlikely to emerge around European institutions for t he foreseeable future. EU-rope may just have to get by without it.


Some Europeans hope, and some Americans fear, that EU-rope will become a superpower. One view, still quite prevalent in France, is that EU-rope should be a rival superp ower to the United States. Another, more widespread in Germany and Britain, is that it should be a strong partner for the US. On paper, an enlarged EU will be even bigger and stronger. But EU-rope will not be a superpower. For the foreseeable future, it w ill not have the capacity to focus political will, backed by economic might and military force, for the concentrated projection of power outside its borders.

At the moment, it looks as if EU member states will have difficulty reaching even the mod est target of 60,000 well-equipped, well-trained, and speedily deployable troops in the European Rapid Reaction Force. This force may eventually be used to extract some Europeans from a troubled African country, or in a minor role elsewhere. It is most unlikely do more on its own. Yes, in trade and aid negotiations the EU may be a power as important as the US. But that does not make a superpower. When it comes to foreign policy, the answer to the question that Henry Kissinger may or may not famously have asked—“you say Europe, but can you tell me which number I should call?”—is plain. Europe is still a conference call.


A EU-rope that hopes to become a unitary superpower will be like the mermaid who wanted to be a girl, in Ha ns Christian Andersen’s fairy tale: her feet hurt all the time because they should really be tailfins. But she doesn’t need to be so unhappy. She just has to know who she is.

EU-rope is a formidable economic community. It is, increasingly, a commun ity of shared European law. The EU may not be good at projecting power or security, but it is itself a security community—a group of states for whom it has become unthinkable to resolve their differences by other than peaceful means. And most other s tates on the continent want to join it. Moreover, though very far from being a direct democracy, or likely to become so, it is a community of democracies. However imperfectly, those democracies control and hence give legitimacy to its working. Measured ag ainst the European past—and the Balkan present—that is a lot to be happy about.

If you look for a coherent, rational, transparent, democratic structure, you will be disappointed in the EU-rope of fifteen states, and probably even more so in a EU-rope of twenty-seven. If, however, you think of it as a process rather than a structure, a method rather than a piece of architecture, you need not be. And you can be rather more optimistic about a EU-rope of twenty-seven, or thirty-seven, continuing somehow to work. To adapt Churchill’s famous remark about democracy: This is the worst possible Europe, apart from all the other Europes that have been tried from time to time.

These observations do not add up to a comprehensive argument, let alone to a design for Europe. However, they do suggest an answer to the question with which I began. Europe will, indeed, never be Europe, because it is becoming Europe. But this does not mean that it must return to being Europe again.

This Issue

May 17, 2001