Wake up, Europe

It's time for a debate on what ails the European Union of 27 democracies and prevents it from being a superpower

Mehru Jaffer Vienna

This was no ordinary performance that attracted audiences to Vienna's prestigious City Theatre. The hundreds who queued up on a blustery Sunday morning at the former imperial court theatre from the 19th century, came to make a little more sense of their uncertain future in the midst of today's dramatically disorderly world.

The large theatre with over one thousand seats, 81 standing places and room for 12 wheelchairs and escorts, was nearly full. The applause was thunderous as Joschka Fischer, Germany's former foreign minister and vice chancellor; George Soros, American investor; Karel Scwarzenberg, the Czech Republic's foreign minister, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, took to the stage. The occasion was a public debate. The topic: The World Disorder and Role of Europe.

Understandably, every mention of the American president's name that morning was followed by loud, nervous laughter from the audience. “This Bush is a joke — but a dangerous one,” said a spectator sitting close to this writer. By choosing the military option, the American president has destabilised the Middle East and increased the nuclear threat to world security.

According to Soros, any kind of military action against Iran today would be counterproductive. It would neither help end Iran's nuclear ambitions nor mitigate religious extremism in the Middle East. He hoped that a change of leadership in both America and Iran would provide a new opportunity for the two countries to understand each other better.

The Hungarian-born Soros suggested a future freeze on all nuclear activity and new laws that will look afresh at nuclear non-proliferation. It worried Soros that America and Iran were both prepared to precipitate war. He was greatly relieved when the American military establishment vetoed the White House plan to attack Iran.

The debate was intelligently moderated by Alexandra Foederl-Schmid, editor-in-chief, der Standard, Austria's liberal daily. The two hour discussion saw concerns expressed over the European Union (EU) project. Many questions hung in the air: Has the EU reached its end? Is further EU enlargement antagonistic to deeper integration? Should the global community of democracies assume greater responsibility for fixing the world's problems? How can the Islamic world's democratic deficit be closed? Is an independent EU defence capability compatible with NATO? Can European civilian and military capabilities be deployed with greater effectiveness in the world's conflict zones?

“This is only one reason why I think Europe is so great. Not one person would have turned up on a Sunday morning for a serious topic like this in America,” said Slaughter. The international relations expert could not get over the fact that without surrendering their national sovereignty, 27 countries are part of the EU — by choice. The only problem, according to Slaughter, is that the EU does not realise it must continue to be a model and leader in the 21st century.

Slaughter's views of Europe were dismissed quickly by Fischer as being too naïve and idealistic. Her response was to be more cautious. That is the optimistic view of Europe from the outside but within the EU there are causes for pessimism, said Fischer who is voted as one of the most popular politicians in Europe today. Fischer is most respected for having resurrected Germany's Green Party and for being a politician with a vision. Fischer said EU member states are divided and defiant and often unable to understand what is in the interest of each member nation and the continent as a whole.

The EU experiment has been good so far but it could also easily fall apart. There is unity over common economic interests but disagreement on foreign policy and security issues. Fischer

wondered why Europe is never mentioned today in the same breath as America, China and India as a superpower of the future.

It is because the EU lacks unity on key issues. How can it expect to solve the problems of the world if it cannot solve its own problem of disunity? The 27 member EU is powerful and more affluent than Russia but it does not address the current disputes with Russia in one voice. Some EU governments want a stern attitude to be taken towards Russia over energy and human rights issues. Others want to look the other way in the interest of commercial gains. This despite Russia's recent threat to use nuclear might to protect its security. Russia is nervous over the EU's expansion to its borders.

The EU cannot agree over Kosovo, a very serious trouble spot along with Turkey. Slovakia, Romania, Spain and Greece harbour reservations about Kosovo's independence while some member countries will not hear of EU membership for Turkey. Others warn against the danger of rebuffing Turkey - it could push the country, which sits on huge reserves of natural gas, into the waiting arms of Iran and Russia. 

On climate change, Germany and the European Commission are backing proposals for mandatory targets to generate 20 per cent of energy from renewable sources by year 2020. But Poland, the Czech Republic and France are opposed to such targets. The EU was unable to take a united stand against the military invasion of Iraq by America and is now unable to make up its mind on how to deal with Iran. On the issue of Afghanistan, the EU is undecided about the number of troops it should send.

Supported by the brand new offices of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), and launched last autumn by politicians, parliamentarians, business leaders, distinguished academics, journalists, and public intellectuals, public debates are an exercise in promoting a more integrated European foreign policy. With offices in seven countries, the ECFR's in-house policy team brings together some of Europe's most distinguished analysts and policy entrepreneurs to provide advice and proposals on how the EU should deal with global challenges.

Europe played a great role in the last century in building institutions that have enriched life on the planet, but faced with the global challenges of the 21st century, the EU finds itself sitting on the fence. There is a need for a genuinely pan-European perspective on Europe's role on the world stage so that it can regain its role as a leading global player and not be seen as a continent that is dictated by the US.

The world sees the EU as a model that has successfully linked economic success with social equality. But today's Europe is a contradiction. It is a land of peace, democracy, and the rule of law. It is also a land of prosperity with a competitive economy, strong currency, low inflation, and standards of living that are among the highest in the world. Europeans benefit from very high levels of social protection and inexpensive, high-quality education, strict environmental standards, and excellent infrastructure. In addition, Europe has unmatched cultural diversity and great natural beauty.

But politically, Europe is a dwarf — and shrinking. Ours is a century of large states and the further rise of China, India, the US, 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 stem the tide. Without a strong EU, this development will only intensify.