The EU’s vision thing

Europe is seriously and sadly adrift. As the United States prepares for an election more crucial than most on November 2, with voters offered a choice that will determine both the nature of the United States over the next few years and its relations with the rest of the world, the citizens of the European Union are mere spectators of this grand struggle between two very different visions. Even though this election will have a direct impact on our lives as well, we have no say in who the next leader of the United States will be. This is a pity but is also perfectly natural. What is incredible, however, is the fact that we are equally powerless to determine who the next leader of the European Union will be. We cannot take part in the election of the president of the European Commission even if we are citizens of one of the 25 members of the Union. It is sad enough that we have no say in how the executive body that leads the EU is chosen, but it is pathetic that over the past few days we have watched as the incoming Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, has been pleading with the European Parliament for his team’s confirmation, following an unholy uproar over the declarations of the staunch Catholic he has picked to fill the sensitive post of commissioner for justice, freedom and security. Rocco Buttiglione, who is close to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the pope, was careless enough to declare last week that homosexuality is a sin and that a woman’s place is in the home, caring for her babies under the shelter of her protective husband. These might be sentiments that would play well among Catholic constituents in Europe or conservatives in the United States, but seeing as the European Union is the most democratic and liberal group of nations to have ever joined their fates in willing union, its members know that society is very different from that dreamed of by Buttiglione. The Italian’s injudicious declarations therefore rendered him eminently unsuitable as the guarantor of the rights and freedoms that he appeared to disregard. Before this, Buttiglione had found glory by adopting and promoting a British idea for the EU to set up holding camps outside the Union to process would-be immigrants in a bid to cut down on illegal migration. This idea had first been mooted by the British during the Greek presidency of the EU in the first half of 2003 but failed to make it onto the agenda, as the Greeks were promoting a progressive, comprehensive plan to manage migration, in the understanding that the EU members’ aging populations created a need for new infusions of workers. Shipping people into detention camps abroad, or living in the hope that they would go there to seek incarceration on their own, was not part of the Greek plan. As it turned out, it is still not something that most EU countries will accept. Anyhow, with a large number of European Parliament members maintaining that Buttiglione is not the most suitable candidate to protect sensitive freedoms (not to mention the very idea of a compassionate and liberal union), Barroso and his entire 24-member Commission run the risk of being rejected when the European Parliament votes on the issue this coming Wednesday. In a desperate effort to keep his Commission in the game, Barroso pledged on Thursday to take charge personally of part of Buttiglione’s portfolio – the bit pertaining to human rights and efforts to end discrimination. Buttiglione, in other words, is so unsuitable that he has to be relieved of part of his duties, yet his chief cannot simply replace him. Obviously there are great pressures on Barroso from conflicting directions. As he himself was picked to lead the Commission through a complicated compromise between the leaders of the EU states, he is not exactly in any position to impose his will – whatever it may be. With all due respect to Barroso himself, can the EU really hope to have the political force befitting its economic weight when its top official is chosen the way he was and is quite powerless after he assumes office? It may be unfashionable to talk about the power of the individual to shape history (seeing as our union is packed with committees, directorates, consultants, advisers, etc., etc.) but the European Union is too precious an achievement to be left without a strong hand at the helm and a familiar face on the television screen at this uniquely challenging time. The EU recently ballooned from 15 to 25 members, with all the turmoil this brings. The decision to be taken by its leaders in December, on whether to start accession talks with Turkey, is a decision that will define Europe and affect the lives of every one of us and our children – whether we are in favor of Turkey’s membership or not. Social security systems across the EU are heading for collapse and labor regimes need to be reformed to meet current challenges. Each country alone and all together have to deal with the challenge of large numbers of immigrants while not losing the things that made citizens proud to be part of each country. The richest bloc of nations the world has known faces increasing economic competition daily. It has to adopt a constitution within the next couple of years, with each state giving up some of its powers while gaining others. It has to shape a coherent policy with regard to the United States, rather than improvising in accordance with Washington’s seasonal requirements. But most of all, the European Union needs to inspire and unite its people. And it will only achieve this when they elect their leaders directly, give them a mandate to govern and hold them accountable. Until this is achieved – perhaps through EU-wide political parties – we may find our union hobbled by a mix of utopian good intentions and real-world politicking. We have come too far to find out that we have taken a wrong turn. We have to push ahead hard, but no one appears to be rising to the challenge of proposing the way forward.