From a distance, it sometimes seems as if Europe is a laggard.
Slow to modernize and resistant to reform, the continent is struggling to keep up with more dynamic rivals.
Beneath the surface, though, it is in ferment. Europe gave the world the nation-state - the main way people organize themselves in modern times. Heading into a new millennium, Europe is leading the world into what may turn out to be the next great stage of human organization, a layered set of connections both smaller and larger, closer and farther away than countries. Already the Europe of big familiar pieces - France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom - is beginning to morph into something more complicated.
On one hand, European states have decided that they cannot face the challenges of a globalized world on their own. Banding together, they are giving up more and more of their core responsibilities to the European Union (EU), and in the process redefining national sovereignty.
On the other, governments from Portugal to Poland are handing off more and more decisionmaking power to local authorities as they scale back state intervention, and try to make themselves more flexible and responsive. Regional leaders have leaped at the opportunity.
Europe's diverse citizens, meanwhile, are coping with the broad new horizons that the global economy opens up by rooting themselves more firmly in their local identities. Sometimes this ferment is violent. Last month a young woman was killed by a bomb that separatists in the northwestern French region of Brittany had placed outside a McDonald's restaurant.
More often it bubbles bureaucratically, in tussles between EU headquarters in Brussels, national capitals, and regional governments, over how money is spent. The results, on a continent with myriad peoples, histories, and languages are unlikely to be clear cut. "Europe will be a question of variable geometry," says George Reid, deputy presiding officer of the Scottish parliament, a new element in that geometry. "It wouldn't work if it were all neat and tidy."
The picture is far from uniform. For a start, Europe's regions differ enormously in size and wealth, from economic powerhouses such as Bavaria, in southern Germany, to the remote and backward Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The 10 richest of Europe's 211 regions are three times better off than the 10 poorest.
Constitutionally, too, the panorama is varied. King Badouin would not thank you for saying so, but Belgium hardly exists anymore as a sovereign state in the traditional sense: Most real power is in the hands of regional governments serving the French-speaking Walloon or Dutch-speaking Flemish communities.
Germany, whose Constitution was written by the victorious allies after World War II, is a federal republic whose 16 "lnder" have powers reminiscent of those enjoyed by US states. London last year acquiesced to the creation of a local parliament in Scotland and an assembly in Wales.
"The situations from which the different EU states are starting are so diverse it would be astonishing if things developed at the same pace toward the same results," adds Olivier Guersent, a senior official in the European Commission, the EU's executive body, in Brussels. "But the way the world is going makes the national level less relevant."
Certainly, European governments are giving up key responsibilities. Most dramatically, 11 EU countries last year abandoned their national monies to create a common European currency, the euro, giving up control over their macroeconomic policies. The EU is also working toward a common foreign and security policies, and has taken the first steps toward establishing a common European army.
At the same time, local authorities, from village level up to regional, decide how to use about 70 percent of public-works spending in Europe, and in many countries it is the regions that set their own transportation policies, enforce environmental standards, and administer social services. Whole new levels of regional authority have been introduced in France, for example, to try to bring government closer to the people at a time when complaints about faceless, continent-wide bureaucracies are on the rise. Legislative regional assemblies exist in Spain, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Italy, and Portugal.
"Globalization and differentiation go hand in hand," argues Bernard Poignant, the mayor of Quimper in Brittany. "The more the world becomes a big village, the more people want to distinguish themselves from everybody else."
Devolution also meets modern governments' need to pull out of the dominant role they have played in Europe's social welfare states over the past 50 years. This is not necessarily a welcome development, argues Michael Dunford, professor of economic geography at Sussex University in England, if capitals don't provide regions with adequate funding. "Devolution can be a way for governments to avoid responsibility - they cut budgets, but transfer the responsibility for managing them to lower tiers of government" he says.
Don't count out capitals yet
Nor are Europe's nation-states, and the national governments that rule them, ready to be consigned to the ash heap of history. Though they all proclaim commitment to European integration, all fight hard to defend their national interests. And as regions take on more authority, "inevitably there is going to be a tussle for power" between national capitals, warns David Wright, a member of the Forward Studies Group, an EC think tank in Brussels.
Five hundred years ago, there were 415 political entities in Europe: duchies, bishoprics, city-states and nations. They have not consolidated into a handful of modern states - at the cost of much blood and many tears over half a millennium - simply to disintegrate in short order.
"There is a general movement to give regions more and more local powers," says Michel Barnier, the European Commissioner in charge of regional policy. "Nation-states will clearly evolve and change. But we will need states for a long time yet," he believes, if only to carry out social policies. It is hard enough already, Mr. Barnier points out, to persuade rich Germans, or rich Italians, to pay the taxes needed to help poor Germans or poor Italians. As long as Europe is an unreal and artificial construct in most people's minds, "you will never persuade a Bavarian that he should help the Portuguese."
Indeed, many observers fear that the only regions able to take real advantage of the current trend are the wealthy ones, with the resources to encourage and reward enterprise, the goods to trade, or the right geographic location.
Bavaria is a prime example. So is Catalonia, whose capital, Barcelona, is Spain's busiest commercial city; or Scotland, sitting on 60 percent of Europe's oil and gas; or northern Italy, a prosperous industrial region whose people have long viewed their rural southern cousins as a burden.
The dark side of this resurgent regional pride, though, is that "it can become a retreat, a rejection of others," worries Mr. Poignant, the mayor of Quimper. "A protective reflex turns into a xenophobic reflex," as it has done among violent extremists in Corsica and Brittany, for example.
But more often, it seems, people are making room in their minds for regional expressions of their identity - feeling Italian and Sicilian, for example, or Norwegian and Lapp and European.
"People are getting used to managing all the aspects of their identity at the same time - local, political, ethnic, national, continental, and global," suggests Gilles Bertrand, an EC official who has just finished a major study of Europe's possible futures over the next 10 years.
That would reflect the new, multilayered Europe that appears to be emerging, says Patrick Le Gales, a researcher at the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life. "Everything below the level of the state is growing in importance," he says, "but in various different ways that intertwine.
"States no longer have the monopoly they once enjoyed; they are reorganizing and restructuring. But where will it all end up? That is the $64,000 question."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society