E Who? The elusive EU identity

The recent transatlantic split over Iraq found America at odds with much of Europe. But what exactly is Europe? Europeans are still trying to define that identity. And some will posit an answer mid-June, when the European Union constitutional convention in Brussels comes to a close.

The EU began in the 1950s as a humble steel and coal trading community among six countries: Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Over the years, it expanded its membership and political and economic activities, officially becoming the European Union in 1992. Today, 12 of its 15 members have replaced their national currency with a common one, the euro. And 10 countries from Eastern and Central Europe are poised to join next year.

The establishment of a European constitution should be a momentous occasion - the pinnacle of 50 years of postwar reconciliation and cooperation that also heralds a 21st century power to rival the dominance of the US. Instead, the convention is headed for anticlimactic closure without having engaged and energized the Europeans it represents, and without having generated significant interest outside the EU. The document that emerges is unlikely to define Europe categorically because it can't possibly reconcile the very real political, economic, and geographical divisions that exist among member countries.

The Constitution, intended to clarify and codify the EU's role and responsibilities, has failed to inspire Europeans because its institutions remain distant, physically and metaphorically, from the people they represent. The buildings that house the European Commission, Parliament, and Council - steel and glass behemoths easily mistaken for large corporate offices - are far from the Brussels city center. It's also difficult for citizens to visit their European parliamentary representatives (the only directly elected EU officials), because Parliament meets in Strasbourg, Brussels, and Luxembourg.

Moreover, many Europeans simply don't feel that they have control over the institutions and "Eurocrats" that are increasingly governing them.

The Commission, Parliament, and Council formulate and implement a variety of rules and regulations. This acquis communitaire, now some 80,000 pages, governs food and safety laws - regulating everything from teeth-whitening procedures to genetically modified organisms - as well as common customs procedures, economic policies, and many other areas.

This harmonization has certainly brought benefits to member states and their citizens; it is easier for them to study, travel, and do business in Europe. But some worry that European regulations have trumped local laws. The European Commission refuted a persistent rumor that EU safety regulations might do away with Britain's double-decker buses, insisting that such laws would only apply to new buses. But some rules have required substantial and costly changes in domestic policy.

For example, an EU directive on the disposal of refrigerators required Britain to use special recycling plants. The absence of such plants caused the growth of a "fridge mountain" of abandoned appliances (estimated disposal cost between £40 million and £75 million). Similarly, prospective countries have undertaken costly reforms to bring rules and regulations in line with the EU standards.

Constantly evolving, the major responsibilities of the EU's three institutions - and the political and economic domains they cover - remain in flux. But few Europeans could possibly explain the minor and major adjustments wrought by various treaties over the past 15 years. The convention will have utterly failed if it cannot consolidate the changes into an approachable document.

Though Europeans may define themselves in contrast to the US - on the death penalty, the welfare state, and the Middle East - serious political and economic differences among EU countries remain. The war in Iraq illustrated divisions among European leaders, highlighting the difficulties of implementing a common foreign and security policy. The EU negotiates as a body in the World Trade Organization, but the Britain and others have butted heads with France and Germany over agricultural subsidies and various trade-related issues. And the US directs diplomatic overtures at individual countries, rather than EU officials, demonstrating that while the EU wields enormous economic power (its combined GDP far exceeds that of the US), it lacks cohesive political power (usually associated with greater military force).

The prospect of 10 new EU members raises questions about Europe's geographic composition. Might former Yugoslavian countries join, or Russia, a neighbor to several candidate countries? And what about Europe's cultural identity? The convention's president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, offended many by suggesting that the Islamic nature of Turkey might pose a serious obstacle to EU membership.

The European Community was created to ensure that the wars of the 20th century would not be repeated. And more recently, the prospect of EU membership eased the democratic transition and political reforms in many candidate countries. But as it takes on more countries and more responsibilities, an all-encompassing European identity becomes ever more elusive.

Margalit Edelman is a writer and the media director of the International Policy Network in London.

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