EU seeks vision for next 50 years

As leaders of the 27 European Union members gather in Berlin this Sunday for the 50th anniversary of the EU, much of the effort behind a highly anticipated "Berlin Declaration" is to make the postwar organization pertinent to ordinary Europeans – a record number of whom are skeptical of the Union, even while enjoying its benefits.

Five decades ago this Sunday, a new Europe formally emerged with the signing of the Treaties of Rome. It was a brave and visionary effort to transcend national boundaries and illiberal ideologies. With American help, Europe shaped a common market and sphere of values against the backdrop of Soviet communism, two cataclysmic wars, and Auschwitz.

Now, as the EU pauses to consider its foundational ideals, it's striving to make them relevant. Climate change has emerged as a key rallying point. In addition, the US seems to be placing renewed emphasis on the transatlantic relationship. In Washington, top US diplomats told the Monitor that a stronger working relationship with Europe is needed in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Kosovo, among others, and admitted that Europe had been wrongly ignored in the "strategic complications" after 9/11.

The EU's success in shaping peace, prosperity, and notions of international justice and human rights are today so taken for granted that it practically requires a half-century anniversary to mention it, experts say. After the cold war, most states wanted to join what is seen as a haven of wealth and security.

Yet the EU has struggled, often vainly, to capture the popular imagination of ordinary Europeans, who often think of Brussels as a massive bureaucracy run by distant elites interested only in measuring bananas and regulating figs. The need to make the EU seem "relevant" on the street is seen as crucial to its future success and development, argued World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy in the Financial Times (FT) this week. "Europe today lacks the necessary political energy," he wrote. "Public opinion is skeptical, political elites are fatigued."

The Berlin Declaration, hashed out for months, will build on the EU's decision this spring to take the global lead in battling climate change, and it will provide a "road map," as a foreign ministry source in Berlin put it, for reinvigorating the idea of Europe. The issue is a sensitive one. In a 2005 referendum, French and Dutch voters said "No" to the idea of a common European constitution.

Though the Berlin Declaration will not mention the concept of a constitution, the idea of a road map is clearly seen as a way to move toward the kinds of common security and foreign policies, more- equitable and clear decisionmaking in a group now bursting with 27 members, and other elements found in constitutions.

The 50th anniversary of what was then a six-nation union called the European Economic Community is seen by many diplomats as a chance to pause and revisit the original concepts of the EU. In the past months, the Berlin Declaration itself has been a document in search of a more relevant message. The initial idea was to emphasize something called the Lisbon Declaration that spelled out state responsibility in the EU – though France and Holland were missing from the pack. Then the emphasis shifted to energy and security, following the threat of Russian gas cutoffs in early January. Finally, after the bold move in Paris by EU states to battle climate change, the EU found its common touch issue.

"Politicians in Europe are looking for the winning formula. They want to know how to talk to the people about a new vision," argues Heinrich Kreft, senior foreign policy adviser to the Christian Democratic party in Berlin. "People first have to know what Europe is.... The idea has been lost ... It sounds too abstract. It was easier and more successful to build against the Soviet bloc, than to define it positively."

While the EU's precursor was focused on economics, it also introduced a new concept of identity. "We unite people, not just states," argued one founder, Jean Monnet of France.

But today, Europeans show deep ambivalence about such unity. In FT/Harris polls this week in the five largest European states, some 44 percent said their country had not improved since joining the EU. But only 22 percent felt life would be better if their country left the EU.

US diplomats noted ruefully this week that US relations had largely been ignored in European debates leading to the Berlin Declaration. They say Washington is eager to join with Europe as a "central partner" in a "shared vision of values" to resolve many of the conflicts challenging the stability of the world.

We were "disappointed" that "not a very big part of the debate"over Europe's future touched on America's role and "transatlantic relations," said Kurt Volker, principal deputy assistant secretary for Europe at the State Department, in comments to the Monitor. But he also said the US could have done a better job in engaging Europe after 9/11. Americans had steadily supported Europe in its birthing in the 1950s, including the Marshall Plan, whose 60th anniversary is this year, he noted. Moreover, for decades prior to Sept. 11, Europe had been central to all US foreign-policy questions. But after the 2001 attacks and the "strategic challenges" they raised, "Europe was seen as not central," he said, to the US challenge of "rogue states, problem states, and terrorism ... which seemed to exist in a separate sphere from Europe."

"But we've gone through an intellectual evolution ... and it is significant," Mr. Volker added. "Now, the principal pillars of the democratic community in the world are Europe and the US."

Much of the initiative to offer a reinvigorating "declaration" is due to tireless efforts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, diplomats say. This week, Ms. Merkel avoided a small crisis in the 50th anniversary celebration by gaining Poland's agreement not to oppose the statement.

Most political observers agree that Europe can't approach the question of a new constitution until after the French elections in May. The German presidency of the EU ends June 30 – giving Berlin only a brief window to hammer out a new road map with the incoming government in Paris.

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