Has Europe got what it takes to be the new US?

April 19, 2002

If the European Union is to fulfil its potential as a supranational democracy, it must offer its citizens freedom, security and, most of all, respect. Dennis Smith reports.

Professors and politicians in Brussels are discussing Europe's long-term future. A few weeks ago, at the opening of the Brussels Convention on the future of Europe, European Commission president Romano Prodi, a politician and a professor, declared: "The aim is not to build a superstate. Why do so now, at a time when classical state models are increasingly incapable of managing globalisation? The aim, a combination of realism and vision, is to continue developing this unique structure towards an increasingly advanced supranational democracy."

He might have added that the European Union is at a decisive crossroads. If the superstate is off the agenda, there are only two ways for Europe to go. Either it could break up into national and local interests, with policies dictated by this year's balance sheet or next year's elections, or it could break out of Europe's continental confines and into the global game that is dominated by the United States.

Of course it does not actually feel like we are at a crossroads. That is what is so dangerous. At first sight, everything looks good. If the queue at the door is what counts, Europe is a great success. At the moment, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria are all negotiating with the "bouncers" at the entrance to Club Europe. The official hope is that most of them will be inside by the next European Parliament elections, in June 2004.

But the queue at the door might also be the start of the break-up of the EU. The entry of a dozen or more members will change its dynamics in ways that cannot be predicted. It is more of a gamble than anyone cares to admit. Everyone will want their piece of the pie and the potential for factional politics to get out of control is greatly increased. One consequence might be fragmentation or fission. That outcome is by no means impossible. Whatever the geopolitical advantages of a strong and stable EU, some of Europe's rivals would not mind seeing it collapse (just a little, at least).

That is not difficult to understand. A dominant power such as the US or a challenger such as Japan (still a major global player despite its recent troubles) will always be nervous of the growing power of a competitor. This is not new. Go back a century and a half to when Britain was dominant and the US was growing fast. Then many Britons were quite happy to see the outbreak of the American civil war. And consider the ripples of anxiety in the US today, caused by China's rapid modernisation. New in American bookshop windows is Gordon Chang's The Coming Collapse of China. This title gives its readership a message it wants to hear.

The EU is not very old and is growing fast. It will probably make its 50th anniversary in 2007. But will it - unlike the Soviet Union or the old German Empire - manage to complete its second half-century? By that time, if some current estimates are accepted, the Chinese economy will be the largest in the world. So if the EU is indeed still in existence it will be operating in a very different world from the one we have now. If it is going to survive, we will need to work at it. The best hope for keeping the EU in being - and making it worthwhile - is to maintain forward momentum towards an ideal that inspires its citizens. What people want most is a mix of freedom (opportunity, autonomy), security (welfare, order) and respect. Getting the balance right and realising that you have got it right is a difficult feat.

At their noblest, advocates of the Soviet ideal aimed to give citizens welfare and respect; at their worst, they crushed opportunity, autonomy and lives. The American dream produced the mirror image: freedom was pushed at the expense, too often, of welfare rights, dignity - and lives, as African-Americans know too well.

Compared with the Soviet and American experiments, the European experiment is still relatively young, open-ended and undogmatic. It is true that Europe could crash and splinter in the next few decades. But another possibility is that the EU could draw creatively on its diverse resources to give reality to a model of citizenship that avoids the extremes of either "turbo-capitalism" or "turbo-communism". If the EU is to survive enlargement, then it desperately needs an enlarged vision of itself.

If America has explored the potentialities of freedom, and the Soviet Union pursued the idea of security, then let Europe be the pioneer of human respect. Neither freedom nor security alone is enough to guarantee mutual respect. One reason is that respect is best cultivated within relationships that are both free and secure - stable, long-term and unthreatening. But how do we get there?

The central drama of global society over the past two centuries has been the gradual breakdown of oppressive hierarchies and the assertion of equality as an operating principle in many kinds of relationships. The most obvious example of this has been the breakdown of Europe's land and sea-based empires. As the EU expands, it is drawing into its orbit nationalities that have, in recent history, been the victims of humiliating oppression or, at least, a crushing sense of inferiority. Within the councils of the EU, ex-oppressors and ex-victims - as well as old military opponents - are learning to deal with each other in a relatively friendly way and on more or less equal terms. This is an important achievement although far from complete. The next ten years will be a big test of our capacity to take this further.

Europe's experience in this area is a global asset that should be exploited. The pursuit of freedom, respect and security is not just a European but also a global preoccupation. One possible future is that the global level of governance will steadily thicken out and that our citizenship and sense of identity will become increasingly multi-layered - local, national, regional and global. It is in our interest that things should go this way rather than towards the future described by Samuel Huntington, one in which hermetically sealed civilisations guard their frontiers against each other. Europe will hopefully avoid this and break out from the Huntington Trap, not least because we are likely to discover that in 2025 or 2050 a beleaguered US finds Europe almost as alien as Islam or China.

One reason that the establishment of a humane and decent form of global governance is in our interest is that at some point in the next half-century we are going to have to deal with a US that is coming to realise that it is no longer "number one" in the world. Despite American triumphalism during the 1990s, there is still a strong likelihood that the balance of economic and political power will shift from the West towards Asia during the 21st century. Three things that must be considered possible are: that China will not disintegrate (just as the US did not break up in the 1860s); that Japan will emerge from her current economic crisis even stronger (as the US did after 1929); and that despite their recent enmity, Japan and China will work more closely in the future - as Germany and France did after 1945.

A US that is frightened of losing its superiority may be a dangerous and unpredictable force. Perhaps the anxiety is already there and helps explain the determined unilateralism of the Bush administration. A current American bestseller is Pat Buchanan's The Death of the West . Well, one way to avoid the death of the West is to work towards strengthening forms of global governance that give freedom, security and respect to all, including those who are not the most rich and powerful; making rules that we would be happy to live with wherever we are within the global pecking order. Europe could play an important part in showing by example how this kind of world might be created. After all, we in Europe know what it is like to lose the number one slot - and survive, so far at least.

Dennis Smith is professor of sociology at Loughborough University and a vice-president of the European Sociological Association.

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