Commentary: Will Europe Become A Backwater?

Its failure to pull together could relegate the EU to minor-power status

A few days before 25 European Presidents and Prime Ministers met in Brussels to try to ratify a constitution, former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing had dire words of warning. Failure to approve the 265-page text, of which he had been the principal author, would be a disaster for the cause of a united Europe: "We would see the gradual falling apart of the European Union."

Well, the summit did collapse in utter failure on Dec. 13. Poland and Spain, as feared, blocked a move by Germany and France to retain their influence in a bigger union. Thus Europe is still without a constitution, a document its framers intended to strengthen the continent's clout in global affairs.

On the surface, though, it's hard to see how Europe will fall apart, Giscard's fears notwithstanding. The euro didn't crash on news of the debacle. The European Union is still scheduled to expand to the East. So does this constitution business really matter?

Well, yes -- if you see the setback in the global context. The collapse of the convention was in fact bracketed by two other major political events -- events that show how much Europe stands to lose if it cannot strengthen its position in the geopolitical arena. Both events involve what the French call "the hyperpower," the U.S. Both deliver the same message: that the world isn't waiting for Europe to buff up its internal political agenda. Giscard may be proved right after all.

The first event that made Europeans uneasy was the early December state visit to the U.S. of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, just days before the Brussels meeting. From the 19-gun salute at the White House to the lavish praise heaped on Wen by U.S. leaders, the visit was a reminder that China is now for all intents and purposes a closer U.S. ally than Europe. At least the Chinese are trying to solve one crisis -- North Korea -- while France and Germany have done little about Iraq. More important, here was a key moment in what could be the most important strategic partnership of the 21st century -- a moment that a politically fragmented Europe, left haggling around a Brussels table, had nothing to do with. A Beijing-Washington axis, "if it can hold, will be the most hopeful chance for state peace this century," says Julian Lindley-French, a strategic affairs specialist at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. "And Europeans? They make noises about their new role in the world, but basically it's clear they want to stay on their eternal merry-go-round."

Just hours after the constitution summit collapsed came the other shock: the American capture of Saddam Hussein. Europe's leaders graciously praised the U.S. for bringing the ex-dictator to justice -- and were privately relieved that the spotlight was now on something other than their failed constitutional negotiations. But the episode also graphically reminded the Europeans that the U.S. is still pursuing its Iraq policy with vigor, despite the noisy objections of France and Germany, who tried to smother the British-led movement in Europe to back the war. The U.S. Army's frustrating inability to nab Saddam had strengthened the Franco-German position. Not any more. The momentum seems to be back with the Americans: Europe even appears ready to follow the American lead in restructuring Iraqi debt.

CHIRAC'S PLAN B. That's not the position Europe wants to be in. A Europe unified over its foreign policy, and at ease with its own identity as an economic and political force, would be able to deal with China as an equal and possible ally -- just as the U.S. is doing. A unified Europe could also have a much bigger say in Mideast and Iraqi affairs. The constitution, with its plans for more efficient decision-making, for creating a European Foreign Minister, and for establishing the primacy of EU law over national legislation, would have been a huge and historic step toward the kind of federal superstate that could have taken such a bold global initiative.

Instead, Europe is left arguing with itself. The events of the last 11 months certainly suggest that the high-water mark of European integration may already have passed. The year started out with stark policy splits over Iraq. In September, Swedish voters rejected the euro. In November, the EU effectively killed the six-year-old Stability Pact governing state deficits. The constitutional bust-up in Brussels was the coup de grâce.

In this context, the recent remarks of French President Jacques Chirac seem almost surreal. His Plan B is to create a core of pro-integration countries -- with, as it happens, France and Germany taking the lead -- that would move ahead in areas such as justice, police, immigration policy, and taxes. The rest can catch up later. This "core Europe," said a relaxed Chirac after the Brussels meeting fell apart, "is a good solution, as it gives a motor, sets an example, and enables Europe to go faster, farther, and better."

ROLLING UP THEIR SLEEVES. The problem is that this multiple-speed Europe is unlikely to work and could even hasten the fractures that are already evident. It negates the central idea behind the whole European project: that Europeans need to work together. Who would speak for Europe on the world stage if one set of European nations cooperates on defense, a different set on the euro, and a third on immigration policy? "If we set up on the one hand an admiral's command ship speeding ahead in first place and a bunch of stragglers following behind, it will be the end of European integration," says Marek M. Siwiec, national security adviser to Polish President Aleksandr Kwasniewski.

So what's the solution? European leaders are simply going to have to roll up their sleeves and try to find fresh ways to make the 25 EU members work better and more closely together. It could mean going back to the constitution's text to find a compromise giving smaller nations more say in the decision making, at the same time making sure they can't veto policies that are favored by a clear majority of Europeans. Or, if that's not possible, Europeans might have to go back to the constitutional drawing board. In that case, the process could take years -- and push Europe even further to the sidelines of world politics.

That's why the next few months could prove decisive ones for Europe. European Commission President Romano Prodi, for one, fears that if European states don't unite they could face the fate of rich Italian city-states like Venice and Genoa. Up to the 16th century, those cities were as powerful and self-confident and wealthy as any state on the planet. Then, in the wake of America's discovery, France and Spain rose as great powers. The inability of the Italian city-states to unite and adjust to this new strategic reality led them to become decadent backwaters. That's the fate Prodi desperately wants European countries to avoid. The question is: Is he too late?

By John Rossant

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.