It’s raining in Europe’s capital — again

It’s hard to believe, given the European Union’s current state of folly (constitutional debacles, succeeded by budgetary breakdown, followed by public rebukes and predictions of doom) that the EU once sported a marquee name and a dynamic image. In the 1980s, as the Single European Market gathered momentum, EU shops began popping up all over Europe, selling a wide array of snappy accessories to the would-be hip. Lapel pins, fountain pens, bookmarks, bottle openers, T-shirts, even umbrellas all sported the Union’s minimalist design, a ring of stars against a deep blue background, symbolizing happy union under fair skies. When it rained in Brussels (distressingly common even in summer), the blue umbrellas would unfurl on the city’s sidewalks as a fashionable antidote to bleak skies. Nowadays gray-black clouds might be a more apt Union backdrop than benign blue. In fact, the blue/gray dichotomy recalls nothing so much as the US Civil War, pitting gray-clad rebels against their blue-uniformed northern brethren. EU leaders would undoubtedly prefer an image of weather over one of war to describe their current conundrum, but many observers believe the 25-nation bloc is closer to an out-and-out rupture than a mere passing storm. The ill-tempered Brussels summit last week, which broke up without a budget for 2007-13, was clearly built around the wrong issue at the wrong time. Instead of picking up the gauntlet that majorities in France and the Netherlands had thrown down before them and seeking to dissect their robust rejections of the European Constitution, EU leaders tried to skirt the issue by focusing on something they thought, in a leap of faith, would be easy to settle: money matters. Tactically it was not a bad idea by Jean-Claude Juncker, the luckless current EU president, though public blame is now flying as thick as Greek kites on Clean Monday. Britain is taking the brunt, especially from French President Jacques Chirac, for defending its 20-year-old annual rebate and crimping on funding for the EU expansion it long pushed for. Seen that movie too Given the tendency in public affairs to elevate current trends, it is worth remembering that this is hardly the first time that Europe has weathered a political storm. Many would-be wise men are counseling patience, saying this too shall pass. That remains to be seen – history being instructive but not always emulative – but European crisis management has sometimes produced new momentum. As early as 1954, a planned European Defense Community was shot down – by the French National Assembly. Dreams of unity died only to be reborn the next year when, at the Messina Conference in Italy, cooperation via a European Economic Community was launched. A decade later, in 1965, a French walkout from the Council of Ministers was prompted by fears of losing its national veto. The resulting «empty chair» crisis stopped progress in its tracks. Yet the Luxembourg Compromise the following year postponed majority voting – and even paved the way for France to lift its irksome veto over British membership. Longstanding attempts to coordinate currency movements, through the «snake» and Exchange Rate Mechanism, floundered amidst instability and competitive devaluations. Monetary coordination, much less union, remained a dream – at least until the decision to put monetary union at the heart of the Maastricht Treaty. In the early 1980s, European summits became verbal battlegrounds as Margaret Thatcher fought to give Britain a fairer share. The result was an expensive compromise, a yearly «rebate» to the UK. For 20 years, the issue was underground, until now. And in 1992, Maastricht was surprisingly rejected by Denmark, delaying full ratification, while Irish voters later initially rejected the Nice treaty. Both treaties, amended, still came into effect. Feels like the first time Crises have thus been a springboard as much as a trap, and grim moods don’t always translate into meltdown. However, the scales could easily be tipped toward deeper crisis governed by confusion and bad blood. First, while voters have played mischief before, the rejections were more decisive this time around. Clearly there is a gulf between EU leaders and public opinion, which is more restive and far less supportive of the process than was long assumed, mistakenly or arrogantly. Second, some old certainties have gone. In particular, the Franco-German «double helix» within the Union’s complex DNA is shaky, due to circumstance more than design. The surprise is how quickly it occurred, after decades of near-universal assumptions that their joint interests, and those of the EU, went hand in hand. Third, last year’s big-bang enlargement to 25 members reverberated more widely than was thought. It added strain on the institutional mechanisms (imagine a runner putting on 20 kilograms and trying to move as before), it drew German attention east as well as west, and it widened differences in political philosophy and geopolitical interest. De Gaulle dreamed of a Europe des patries, «from the Atlantic to the Urals.» He got his wish but his compatriots clearly don’t buy into the result, and the newcomers will not follow the dictates of «Old Europe.» Turkey’s EU track may be a casualty. Divides among member states, while never absent, are greater than before. There was always a gap between «wideners» and «deepeners,» older and newer members, big and small states, north and south. But the differences (social vs liberal Europe) now may prove unbridgeable. For a long time, separation was a solution: Countries with different situations or needs remained outside, whether by force (Eastern Europe), by creating alternative institutions (like the old EFTA), or simply by staying aloof, like Norway. The European house is getting crowded, and familiarity can breed contempt. Fourth, the rhetorical heat has been turned up, including public reprimands of the sort unheard of in earlier years. Juncker, the patrician PM from courtly Luxembourg, pointedly said after the summit that he would definitely give a miss to British PM Tony Blair’s upcoming speech to the European Parliament. Gloves-off rhetoric is becoming the norm, perhaps unconsciously echoing the viciousness of much of the «no» referendum camps. Fifth, a leadership gap plagues both the EU and national states. Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has yet to find his feet and follows two relatively weak incumbents. Chirac has been deeply damaged, and rivals are jostling for the 2007 elections. German Chancellor Schroeder is fighting for his political life in upcoming elections. Dutch PM Jan Peter Balkenende is fighting his corner like a wounded hound. Oddly enough, a self-declared lame duck – Britain’s PM Tony Blair – appears strongest politically, though his Thatcher-like rebate defense made some recoil. Greece’s Costas Karamanlis is another looking well ensconced in power, although the European Commission is on Greece’s tail over too many issues – the deficit, the environment, the new media ownership law – to give it the centrality it sometimes craves. And sixth, fundamental decisions are not just being reconsidered, but doubted and even discarded. The Lisbon Growth Strategy has lagged, while the Stability and Growth Pact was publicly flouted by France and Germany (contributing to their fall in esteem). This is best seen in the case of the single currency. Arguably Europe’s boldest achievement, the talk suddenly has shifted from interest-rate levels to whether the whole project should be ditched. The continent-wide, hefty price markups that accompanied the euro’s introduction clearly left a wide residue of bitterness and have even led to calls (such as that by Italian Labor Minister Roberto Maroni) to bring back separate currencies. This would likely be a fool’s errand, notwithstanding the false logic of a single currency without a unified tax regime or government. Economic stability, not just currency confidence, could be a casualty of such moves. The umbrellas are again out in Brussels. The trick right now may be simply to avoid a thorough soaking.

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