Europe's telltale year

In her understated way, Britain's Queen Elizabeth termed 1992 an annus horribilis. Fire struck Windsor Castle, royal marriages fell apart, and the monarchy came under public scrutiny. In 2005, that Latin phrase could easily apply to Europe as a whole.

This year is not one on which Europeans will look back with "undiluted pleasure," as the queen put it years ago. The mostly Muslim suburbs of France were set ablaze in rioting. London subways were bombed by homegrown Islamist terrorists. And Europeans, supposedly happily married in a European Union with 10 new members, revealed in referendums that they weren't so happy after all.

Though unrelated on the face of it, these and similar developments share a root in the inability of the EU to keep momentum in integrating people and their values - in finding commonality between Muslims and Christians, and among Europeans themselves.

The French and Dutch said "enough" to integration within Europe when they rejected a proposed constitution for the newly expanded 25-member Union last spring. That halted the effort to streamline the EU, to give it a greater immigration and judicial role (greatly needed in the post-9/11 world), and to speak with a more unified voice on foreign policy.

In part, French and Dutch voters were expressing fears about an immigration threat - of Muslims invading French and Dutch culture, and of cheap labor from new EU members of formerly communist countries.

The fissures are not just political and social, but economic and fiscal, too. Five of the 12 countries which use the new single currency, the euro, can't meet the currency pact's requirement to control national deficits. Earlier this year, an Italian government minister publicly advocated going back to the lira.

The one-size-fits-all philosophy behind the euro is thrown into question as the monetary policy needs of nations experiencing strong economic growth diverge from those with sluggish economies. That cleft may be exacerbated Thursday when the European Central Bank is expected to heed the inflationary concerns of stronger-growth economies and raise interest rates for the first time in over two years. That's bound to set high-jobless-rate countries such as France howling (and it's not likely to improve work prospects for its Muslims).

The euro fissure is really an issue of not enough economic and political integration (or reform), yet Europe lacks the will to keep on the integration path. The original purpose - to economically bind Germany to its neighbors to prevent wars - is no longer relevant. The goal of the last decade - to anchor the former communist countries of Eastern Europe in the democratic EU club - is well underway. What can motivate togetherness now?

Two biggies. One is the shrinking world, the flattening world, whatever you want to call globalization. Only by making it easier for goods, services, and labor to move within Europe can it gain a healthier single currency and the flexibility to compete globally.

Call the other the you're-in-it-now reason. Europe can't wish away its millions of Muslims. It won't expel its 10 new members, nor undo the euro. The truth is, it's midstream in the integration experiment. There's no choice but to go forward.

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