A quiet revolution in Europe

Smoothly, quietly – befitting the processes of mature democracies – a revolution is under way in Europe. There is a new team in power in the three countries that make a difference in the European Union, at a time when Europe is plagued by extended paralysis even as the challenges it faces grow more difficult by the day. The EU has been rudderless since the French and Dutch rejected the European Constitution. The continent is in the frontline of a new rivalry between Washington and Moscow which is centered on US plans for an anti-missile shield on European soil and on energy, with the United States alarmed at Europe’s growing dependence on Russian gas and oil. Some former Soviet bloc states that are now independent and members of the EU are in open confrontation with Russia. The EU has to deal with the risks and opportunities of globalization, including the rise of China, India, Brazil and other powerhouses. Domestically, most countries are facing problems in absorbing immigrants and in making the necessary changes to their economic models so as to protect current labor and pension benefits even as work forces shrink and pensioner numbers continue to rise. And the major issue of Turkey’s bid for EU membership will not be dealt with easily. The omens, however, suggest that Europe is headed for interesting times. All three new leaders have shown their determination to clash with the past while at the same time displaying keen awareness of the need to secure as large a measure of public support as possible. Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, took over as president of France last Wednesday. At the same time, Gordon Brown, 56, is getting ready to step into Tony Blair’s shoes when Blair resigns as prime minister on June 27. Angela Merkel, 52, has been chancellor of Germany and head of a «grand coalition» since November 2005. All three come into power from different directions and at slightly different times. But now that they are in alignment it seems more likely than it did a few months earlier that their three countries will work toward shaping a proposal for Europe to help it get out of its rut. Sarkozy succeeds fellow right-winger Jacques Chirac, who presided over a long period of stagnation in France, after a hard electoral battle with his Socialist rival – a rival who did not show the same determination as Sarkozy to shake up France. In Britain, Brown will take over without having won a mandate of his own. But he was at Blair’s side in three successive electoral victories and voters knew they were voting for both men and that Blair would hand over the leadership of the Labor Party and of the country to his Scottish compatriot who has set a record for the length of his term as chancellor of the exchequer. Merkel, who heads the right-wing Christian Democratic Union, took over from the charismatic Gerhard Schroeder but, because of a weak majority, was forced to shape a coalition that includes the Social Democratic Party which Schroeder had led. Her government thus enjoys an unassailable majority but finds it difficult to agree on structural changes. For example, the radical proposals that Merkel presented for changes to Germany’s very expensive health system were diluted amid disagreement and compromise. As current head of the European Union, Germany has made it a priority to seek a compromise that will give new life to efforts to revive the constitution. In a highly symbolic act, Sarkozy visited Merkel on the very day of his inauguration and declared that for him it was a priority to end Europe’s «paralysis.» One of Brown’s aides has spoken of a policy in which Britain is pro-Europe but also hardheaded in pursuing what it wants – which translates into Britain wanting to be part of EU developments while still having the room to opt out of issues whenever it wants to maintain its sovereignty. According to the Financial Times last week, Merkel appears to be discussing such an opt-out possibility. It is certain that France and Britain (just as Germany and every other country, for that matter) will look after their own interests first. But Europe has been on hold long enough for those in power in Berlin, Paris and London to realize that a strong and determined Europe is in everyone’s best interests. They can look to each other for ideas and solutions. So now that the leaders in these three capitals gather fresh impetus, they may give the European project a new dynamism. But even if they fail in this, as long as they find creative solutions to their domestic problems – problems which plague all EU countries – then they will provide the catalyst for developments across the continent that will, in turn, lead to a stronger Union.