Global waves from a Europe adrift?

The outcome of the national referenda on the European Union's constitution now roiling the continent is bound to create big waves on the other side of the Atlantic too. As the French, Dutch, Poles, and others prepare to vote, America must weigh the probable global consequences of their choice.

For the Europeans - and particularly the French, who vote Sunday - this electoral consultation has taken a dramatic turn far beyond ratification of a constitutional treaty. It has crystallized an amalgam of domestic and global issues that play into the hands of disgruntled constituencies venting their anger at the political establishment. Among these anxiety-breeding issues are a stagging economy, deepening unemployment, cheap immigrant labor, endangered social welfare, and the mounting competition of galloping globalization.

In France, Europe's driving force, polls predict a "no" vote, which could well contaminate the June 1 referendum in the Netherlands and those that follow elsewhere. If that happens, the treaty either would have to be abandoned or renegotiated - both forbidding prospects. Either way, the process will determine the kind of Union that the rest of the world has to live with. Will the economic and monetary giant, with 25 member-states and a population of 450 million, still seek political integration, or will it revert to its origins of a simple common market or free-trade zone?

This raises the critical question: What kind of Europe would best suit America? The US has consistently called for a strong, peaceful, and democratic Europe. Yet, given the bitter transatlantic bickering over the war in Iraq, the rationale underlying this rhetoric is today more wobbly than it appears. America has huge stakes in Europe's ultimate architecture. If the verdicts of the Euroskeptic states break the momentum of integration, they may produce a divided, distended, and impotent Union that wouldn't do anyone any good. The US global agenda in particular might suffer: the war on terrorism, containment of nuclear proliferation, pacification of the Middle East, promotion of freedom and democracy, and - above all - the functioning of the Atlantic Alliance. All of these require coherent, effective cooperation, wherever it can be found.

America, with its difficult and costly global responsibilities, must carefully address the complexity of its relationship with a changing Europe. Would it be more comfortable with a tightly-knit, politically coordinated, and economically dynamic Union that can be a reliable and effective ally, albeit one with a mind and voice of its own? Or would it prefer a slacker Union with more breadth than depth, less likely to become its rival or counterweight on the international stage, making it more difficult to take necessary collective action in the UN, NATO, or elsewhere?

A fly on the wall when President Bush's national security team meets to discuss European integration would probably hear mutterings about the charms of a weaker Europe, a little soft at the core, whose center of gravity is shifting toward the more pro-American East - a Europe that might abandon its ambition to establish joint foreign policies independent of Washington's. One hopes others at the table would argue that European integration had best go forward toward a reformed, modern, and cohesive Union with a free and open market and the ability to act in tandem with the US on matters of global concern. America, which can't resolve on its own all international crises, needs a united and capable partner that shares the same values and interests. That partner must in turn be able to count on a reliable US with which it can cooperate on security and diplomacy, solve accumulating international problems, and share in economic prosperity.

Leah Pisar, a visiting scholar at the Center for American Progress, has served at the National Security Council, State Department, and the US Embassy in France.

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