Much was written, in the anxious leadup to the French and Dutch referenda on the European Constitution last spring, about the big «If» – what might happen should these traditional backers of European unity turn their backs on the weighty and ambitious document. Their rejections prompted a welter of hand-wringing among the cognoscenti that has yet to die down. If no Plan B was in hand beforehand, many clearly feel it’s high time to work one up in this so-called «year of reflection» occasioned by the twin electoral wrecks. With the end of one of its most trying years in sight, the EU is starting to claw its way back. Granted, taking to the political offensive is not something Brussels is very good at. It is more accustomed either to technocratic aloofness or defensiveness, as a convenient whipping post for feckless national politicians. With the EU trying to renew itself at the end of the growing season, not least through a listening initiative actually called «Plan D,» this is no ordinary autumn in Euroland. These pre-Christmas initiatives were duly forewarned by the procession of punditry in last week’s international press. British Prime Minister Tony Blair set the tone last Wednesday in a speech to the European Parliament, outlining five policy areas to focus on. In December comes the biannual EU summit, which will try to reach a budget agreement for 2007-2013 after similar efforts failed in June. Small steps Meanwhile, on Thursday EU heads of state and government convened at Hampton Court outside London for an informal mini-summit billed as a bid for an «overall strategic consensus» to face globalization’s many challenges, but which was overshadowed by fresh Iranian threats and afterward criticized for being more show than substance. Historic Hampton Court is a grand palace from a grand (Tudor) age, and made for a splendid setting. In other ways, though, it was a less than ideal choice for drumming up unity. It was, after all, a haunt of King Henry VIII, who famously broke with the Vatican over a royal divorce and cemented the Anglo-Continental divide. And the grounds sport one of the biggest hedge-mazes anywhere, although the illustrious guests wisely avoided any attention-getting foray into its wiry confines. In the spirit of recognizing challenges, the Commission has also this month taken steps to improve the lot of Europeans affected by the growing mobility of labor within Europe and by the fallout from globalization. On October 20, it proposed that European workers be allowed to keep their pension benefits as they move about Europe from job to job, as many millions already do. «Pension rights must be fully transferable,» Czech Commissioner for Employment Vladimir Spidla said. Talk about a big task: In Germany alone, supplemental pension credits run to over 350 billion euros. And transference will be a nightmare for the newer 10 member states. The legislation has been talked about since the late 1980s and it will be years before problems can be ironed out. Pensions remain, like so much else of economic life, stubbornly parochial and dependent on conditions within nation states. The situation frustrates attempts to create a single European economic space, much less a political union. The other initiative, announced on the same busy Thursday, envisions the creation of a «mega-shock absorber» to cushion the effects of restructuring European economies. This issue too has been kicked around for awhile, and financing it (as always) remains the biggest problem. Member states with prior approval would have access to a common fund, which is aimed, according to Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, at creating «active mechanisms of social solidarity and of social justice.» Once again the Commission, which «initiates but does not dispose» and is frequently blamed for not taking action, finally takes it, even while handcuffed because it lacks the resources that still must come from the states themselves. Talking back Between these two issues and yet another on the transatlantic level – hot words over high EU farm subsidies and a «final» European offer to slash these by nearly half – a very different sort of initiative was announced mid-month. With a plunge deeper into the alphabet, «Plan D» hopes promote Democracy, Dialogue and Debate within the Union. It is intended to boost the EU’s credentials and credibility after the constitutional debacle and tensions between Britain and France. Member states are to push national debates on the EU (yes, even Greece), with Commission support in setting out key themes and processes. Plan D seems more than a mere charm offensive by the Commission’s personable vice president, Margot Wallstrom of Sweden. The unusual starting point is a candid admission: not just that the EU must communicate better with its citizens (which anybody can see) but that the EU has mainly served a small political circle. One of the EU’s top elites has just called her own employer elitist. She wants an overhaul of the EU’s communications strategy (for which she is responsible) and essentially invited ideas from the public as she hasn’t heard any good ones from the European Parliament. This is fresh air at work. This open-ended dialogue will also take high EU officials on a circuit of town meetings with students, pensioners, unions, academics and other groups to listen, explain and drum up support. The «year of reflection» won’t be a monastic occasion; it will also fuel a lot of chatter. Commissioner Wallstrom has also launched the EU’s first official weblog, intended as a forum for discussion but which has morphed into a magnet for diatribe, some of which actually relates to the EU. It’s all accessible at the fingertips; you certainly can’t blame the Commission for riding the delete button. These (surprisingly, signed) comments make for some riveting if disquieting reading. And it is easy to understand why the euroskeptics (or self-styled «euronihilists») so easily get the upper hand, with their barbed and punchy comments; EU supporters seem well-meaning but ponderous in comparison. For example, the constitutional effort gets ripped by one as «a turgid mess of incomprehensible legalese,» or as another puts it more succinctly, «just garbage.» «Who gives a toss for harmonization?» scoffs another reader. «I will never give my loyalty to the European Union,» one declares; «Stop trying to create some sort of country called Europe,» another admonishes. «When can we look forward to it being dismantled?» another killjoy asks. Nor is there much mileage in good intentions alone. Ms Wallstrom did a brave thing by starting this effort and even personalizing it a bit. This doesn’t prevent her (or her 20+ staffers) from being derided as «unelected, unremovable apparatchiks»; according to another, EU officials are a «cheating bunch of crooks.» «If you were a decent human being you would resign,» another wag suggests. At least now she has a better idea of what the EU is up against. Good ship Europe is sailing in some iceberg-filled waters.