Defending Europe

In two weeks, Europe will deal with two issues that will leave their mark: December 10 is the deadline for an agreement on Kosovo between ethnic Albanians and Serbs; on December 13, the leaders of the 27 members of the European Union will meet in Lisbon to sign the Reform Treaty to establish the EU’s future development. In the first case, as it doesn’t seem there will be an agreement between the ethnic Albanians and Serbs, the ethnic Albanians, who are in the majority in the historic Serb province, are expected to make a unilateral declaration of independence. Washington has already made it clear that it will recognize the breakaway entity, even though Russia says it will veto such a decision at the UN Security Council. And so Europe will be called upon to deal with a major challenge. It will have to come up with a unanimous decision on how it wants to deal with Kosovo – in the face of the fait accomplis supported by the United States. With Kosovo being such a thorny issue, whose fate will determine developments in the broader region, it will be very difficult to get unanimity. And so it is most likely that Europe’s unity will be sorely tested – as it was in early 2003 in the runup to the US-led invasion of Iraq. The two situations are not identical, but differences of opinion will be intensified by the fact that the future of Kosovo and the Western Balkans are more important to Europe than the differences of 2003 which are already half forgotten. With regard to the Reform Treaty, just over a month ago the Europeans agreed upon a text that will succeed the stillborn European Union Constitution and allow the EU to get on with its future. The treaty institutionalizes many of the concepts of the EU Constitution (such as the posts of a permanent president and foreign minister, a stronger role for the European Parliament, etc) but avoids the need for ratification by referendum. And this brings us to the essence of the European project today: At a time when Europe is called on to meet the challenges of globalization, when it faces huge problems in terms of politics and security, it does not trust its citizens. The rejection of the EU Constitution by the French and Dutch (in referenda in 2005) froze European developments for two years. Today, with the spread of «direct democracy» via the Internet, no government would like to put to a referendum something as abstract as the future of Europe, especially when such procedures are traditionally seen as a confidence vote in the government of the day. The future of Europe, in other words, can depend on the issues that are of local and national interest – such as unease over the influx of migrants, unemployment, reforms to the social security system and so on. Unhappiness (or the fear of unhappiness) at a local level can torpedo a major transnational project. The reason is that united Europe has been built upon an obsession with open markets and open borders. Gradually, though, Europe’s leaders are realizing that just as they have to protect their people from terrorism and organized crime, so they must protect them from the excesses of the free market. Last Friday, Peter Mandelson, the European commissioner for trade, wrote in the International Herald Tribune: «Because globalization is changing our economies and our industries, Europe’s leaders are under huge pressure to show that our openness is reciprocated by others and that others play by the rules.» (The piece, titled «Defending Europe’s interests,» was written with Manuel Pinho, the trade minister of Portugal, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency.) This is a clever way to persist with a policy which may have reached its limits. But perhaps it would be to Europe’s benefit today to work on an image that portrays the EU’s policies as being tailored to each country rather than having them all conform, all the time, to one policy – as if they all have to wear a one-size-fits-all suit. Just as Britain and Denmark, for example, have been allowed to opt out of certain aspects of European policy, so should all countries be able to defend certain sectors within their borders – as long as this does not burden EU funds and the products that arose from this would remain within that country. If a country needs to protect a specific sector of its population for social reasons, the EU should be quick to show understanding – and it should be seen to show understanding. Citizens need to know that they are at the center of policy. Countries with happy citizens are countries that will be useful to a united Europe: They are what the future will be built upon.