Europeans have been transfixed these past frenzied weeks by the U.S. Presidential campaign. Given the blanket coverage from Helsinki to Lisbon, it's almost as if the 2004 Presidential elections were also being held across the European Union (where, according to polls, Senator John Kerry would be savoring a landslide victory over President George W. Bush by now). Through it all, many Europeans have looked at the strangeness of the American political process -- from the billions of campaign dollars spent and the influence of privately financed partisan groups such as MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to the tens of thousands of lawyers put on alert to challenge poll results -- and are wondering whether American democracy will emerge unscathed from the ordeal.
It's not the American body politic Europeans ought to be worrying about but their own. U.S. democracy has weathered many a crisis. Europe, in contrast, is still trying to justify the existence of the European Union -- and to prove its value and viability as a democratic, political construct. Yes, the U.S. is split into red and blue states. But the EU is more polarized than ever over key issues affecting its future, from admitting Turkey as a member to adopting a constitution that would vastly expand Brussels' power to set policies in economics, immigration, and judicial cooperation. The rifts are such that integration now risks becoming gridlocked. Worse, some worry that the EU itself could splinter eventually. "I'm starting to be scared," says Ulrike Guérot, a European politics specialist at the German Marshall Fund of the U. S., a public-policy think tank in Berlin.
The extent to which Europe is still a work in progress can be seen in the clash between the European Parliament and José Manuel Barroso, the President-designate of the European Commission, the EU's executive body. Barroso chose to withdraw his slate of commissioners on Oct. 27 rather than risk certain rejection at the hands of the 732-strong Parliament. Barroso's inept handling of the crisis turned a relatively minor problem -- the outrage of left-wing parliamentarians over anti-gay sentiments expressed by Italy's Rocco Buttiglione, the proposed Justice Commissioner -- into a bitter institutional clash. Although it was a morale booster for the directly elected Parliament, the dustup underscored how incoherent Europe's institutional checks and balances actually are. Even as a revised commission lineup is being readied for early November, the question of how power is apportioned among the Commission, the Parliament, and national governments is more muddied than ever.
The European Constitution poses a similar problem. The signing of Europe's new Magna Carta that, among other things, gives the EU a legal personality and establishes an EU President and Foreign Minister was the occasion for a lavish Oct. 29 celebration in Rome attended by the heads of state of the 25 EU member countries. As usual, the leaders put the cart before the horse. The constitution goes into effect in 2007 and only after being ratified by each and every one of the 25 national legislatures. Nine countries -- Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain -- are asking voters to approve it in a series of referendums that will kick off on Feb. 20 in Spain and end in Britain in early 2006. Just one rejection and the 265-page document will have to be torn up. A large majority in Britain is already opposed, and the French are deeply divided. Rejection would likely spark a crisis.
Not a pretty picture. Even a committed pro-European like Friedbert Pflüger, chief foreign affairs spokesman for Germany's opposition Christian Democrats, now believes that Europe's constitution is dead in the water -- and that Germany should part ways with France on Iraq and realign its policies with those of the U.S. So much for a common European foreign policy. The U.S. election is over. The EU's problems may be just beginning.
By John Rossant