With the United States becoming bogged down in Iraq, how ready might the European Union (EU) be to pick up the slack in global affairs left by the diminishment of American power?
I've been in Europe for nearly six weeks – in Britain, Belgium, and here in northern France. My clear impression is that the EU is too divided and too concerned with pressing internal issues to provide any real alternative to the role the US plays in world affairs. Expect China and India to fill that vacuum instead.
Back in 1989, the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall led many Europeans to dream of a Europe – united, whole, and free – that might act as a single, strong, democratic force in world affairs.
Since then, the EU has expanded. Now it has 27 member nations and a combined population of 495 million. And that expansion has benefited nearly all Europeans.
Europeans' lives are changing fast, and often for the better. The rise of low-fare air travel coupled with the ease of travel among EU countries has led to unprecedented mobility across the Continent.
A few years ago, many Western Europeans worried about an influx of cheap labor from Eastern Europe, symbolized by the "Polish plumber."
But most Britons warmly welcomed the many well-trained Polish workers who arrived. And today, immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European nations seem well integrated in workplaces throughout Western Europe.
The Continent has also become a strong magnet for economic migrants from Africa both north and south of the Sahara. Some of those migrants have fled deep impoverishment or civil wars at home. Others are simply entrepreneurial individuals eager to take any job they can in European countries whose birthrates can't replace an aging workforce.
But these migrants also pose challenges for countries that have not, historically, been used to high immigration rates or the challenges of the many-faceted multiculturalism that has resulted.
Whole areas of London are now a Babel of different tongues, spoken by young people from across the Continent who come there to learn what has become the EU's lingua franca. Here in Lille, I have been teaching a short course on international affairs – in English – at the city's Institut d'Études Politiques.
Like many of France's other state-run universities, this institute now requires that students gain some proficiency in English – quite a change in the country's educational policy!
France is currently gearing up for the first round of its exciting presidential election April 22. The Socialists have a capable and engaging woman candidate, Ségolène Royal. The ruling Gaullists are running a smart candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy. The right-wing, anti-immigrant leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is once again running a strong campaign. (Significantly, all 12 candidates have come out firmly against the US presence in Iraq.)
Britain, too, is preparing for an election, and this one could be more significant than most outsiders realize. This is the May 3 election for the third semi-independent Scottish Parliament to sit since this body was created back in 1999. It now appears that the incoming Scottish Parliament might soon demand Scotland's complete secession from the union it has maintained with England for the past 300 years. Many English people, in response, are becoming unprecedentedly anti-Scottish. Some commentators are even talking of a possible "Velvet Divorce" between Scotland and England– similar to what Czechs and Slovaks underwent in 1993.
At the continental level, political integration has been held back in recent years by two major wedges: foreign policy and the EU Constitution.
In the absence of a unified EU foreign policy, individual countries have continued to chart their own course. That's caused considerable European tension over the best policies to pursue toward Iraq and Afghanistan. The failure to ratify the Constitution, meanwhile, stems as much from arguments over specific matters of law as it does from doubts about the value of the European project as a whole.
The good life – on a smaller scale
Today's Europe is an exciting, engaging place to be. Most European economies are humming. The publics here are dealing with challenging issues of governance, including how to build a multicultural community that works for all its citizens. But there isn't much appetite or energy for running the wider world as well.
As Washington deals with the challenges that lie ahead in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe, it won't find a strong, unified Europe standing at its side. Perhaps the best help European countries can provide is to reassure Americans that life can still be good even after a retrenchment from global empire.
• Helena Cobban is a Friend in Washington for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The views expressed here are her own.