Unhappy birthday, dear Europe

March 31, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- ''Europe's'' 40th birthday last week was not a happy affair. European ambition remains, but the project has gone somehow awry. In explanation, people cite the linked economic and social problems of the European countries today, but that does not really satisfactorily account for the widely held sentiment that the official program for the European Union's future is not the right one.

In the past, European unity was expected to produce a more powerful Europe. It has revealed a weaker one, humiliated by the war in ex-Yugoslavia, today incapable of agreeing even on a policy to help chaotic and impoverished Albania, dominated in global affairs by a United States that does not even allow the Europeans the dignity of being ignored. Not only does Washington do what it wants to do -- on matters like NATO expansion, it tells the Europeans what they are going to do.

Enlargement of the European Union to Central and Eastern Europe seems a necessary step -- otherwise how can the EU be called ''Europe?'' yet everyone in Europe understands that this will simply make European institutions even more cumbersome and incoherent.

A recent analysis by a sociologist at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, Henri Mendras, argues that the cumulative effect of all this has undermined peoples' belief that their governments are still in charge of their personal as well as their collective security, and has thus diminished their confidence in citizenship.

He sees this as in part explaining the relative success in France of the rightist National Front. In the past it was taken for granted that government would be able to protect people's health and retirement, defend employment and the nation's great enterprises, and secure the country against internal threats as well as foreign enemies.

Globalization as well as Europeanization have instead robbed states of control over their economies, and made people customers of privatized state services and enterprises, removing their claim on these institutions as citizens. Private interests profit from what before had been public goods and services. Even armies now are compelled to function under international constraints or control -- under the U.N. and then NATO in Yugoslavia, and under the U.S. in the Persian Gulf war.

People are told that all this is necessary for Europe to prosper in the future, play a great role again in world affairs, or even for it to survive today against competition from Asia and America. True or not, the European public sense of impotence grows.

Policy by committee

Expanding the EU so as to take in 11 new candidates (and maybe more, later) can only worsen the complications. The idea of a common foreign policy for 26 nations is ludicrous.

Much of the trouble has come from the conviction of many Europeans that Europe must emulate the United States, as a highly successful and thoroughly integrated federation of states. But the federation of 13 American colonies possessing language, philosophy and history in common, with shared patterns of economics and trade, and this American federation's subsequent creation of new states like itself in what had been wilderness, bears no resemblance to Europe's problem of putting together ancient nations and peoples of different languages and sometimes radically divergent histories and cultures.

The American social model is also a dangerous example for Europeans. The experiences of the wilderness and immigration, their legacies of individualism and egalitarianism, the chance in America to move on a new homestead -- to ''go West'' -- if things went badly, have created American popular attitudes hostile to Europe's Bismarckian welfare state, and to its Christian Democratic/Social Democratic ''social capitalism.''

Europeans must look again into their own national as well as collective experiences to solve this crisis of ''Europe.'' They did this when they began this extraordinary experiment, locking up their war-making capacity in a shared institution, the coal and steel community.

People today still find their identity in nationhood, national citizenship. ''Europe'' now interferes with that felt identity and perceived security. Legitimacy still lies with national government. This will not be changed by institutional innovations; it lies deep in European political culture itself, where the spell of the nation is, in most places, undimmed.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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