If necessity is the mother of invention, can it invent a more united Europe? Progress toward a more formal unity was halted last year when French and Dutch voters rejected a European Union constitution. But look again. Practical matters are pushing Europeans together.
Real-life challenges, it's turning out, may do more to enhance cooperation among the 25 members of the EU than could a document that codified it – at least at this point in time.
Consider, for instance, the terrorist threat. When Britain foiled a plot to blow up US-bound airliners last month, its new baggage restrictions caused confusion in Europe's airports, which use a variety of screening methods. But the plot has also sparked an interest in greater European uniformity in aviation security. Now the EU wants to review aviation rules, research liquid explosives, and explore wider application of biometric screening.
If it makes any changes, the adjustments will follow a long series of cooperative measures prompted by 9/11. Now, for instance, there's an EU-wide arrest warrant, a common definition of a serious crime, and an EU-wide visa. These changes required giving up some degree of national sovereignty – a sacrifice Europeans were willing to make for a practical consideration such as safety, but not for a more theoretical one such as a constitution.
What about foreign policy? With diverging histories and interests, Europe is famous for its foreign-policy splits and indecision. But look at its remarkable commitment to send 7,000 troops to Lebanon as part of the UN peacekeeping force.
It took US shoving, as it often does, but Europe is now taking serious responsibility for a security role in the Middle East. "After having long been a 'payer' of economic assistance, the EU shows willingness to become a 'player,' " wrote Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema in The Wall Street Journal last week.
Perhaps Europe isn't yet ready for a single EU foreign minister, as the constitution calls for, but in this case, at least some member states did agree that preserving stability in the Middle East is in their common interest.
In another area, economics, Europe is also growing closer. This year is shaping up as a record for business mergers and acquisitions. Meanwhile, workers from new EU member countries such as Poland are flowing freely to nations such as Britain and Ireland, whose strong economies need workers.
Another pressing issue could prompt greater European cooperation – immigration. Economic migrants from Africa are crossing the Mediterranean to Europe's coastal border. Hundreds of Africans have been landing almost daily in the Atlantic Canary Islands, a territory of Spain. The country is appealing for help from the EU, which is trying to come to grips with Europe-wide immigration concerns. Interestingly, the proposed constitution would have given the EU a greater immigration role.
Plenty of fault lines still divide Europe. Immigration and labor mobility, for instance, cut both ways, and can just as equally cause individual nations to raise up barriers. But by the time EU leaders are ready to try again with the constitution, they may find much of their unifying work has already been done. By necessity.