US needs a strong Europe

Posted: Tuesday, August 03, 2010

In 2006, foreign-policy oddsmakers were touting the European Union. Global trends, they argued, were redistributing the balance of power, and the Europeans were on track to win. Mark Leonard summed up this thinking in his book "Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century."

What a difference four years makes.

Today, few outside Brussels expect a fast track for Europe. Rattled by the euro crisis, boxed in by demographic challenges, and increasingly risk-averse, Europe is choosing to become, as scholar Ivan Krastev puts it, a "retired power."

But if there is one thing the United States does not need in 2010, it is a self-doubting, infirm Europe.

In the calm after the global financial storm, the European Union will remain the world's largest economy. And the central challenges facing Europe and the United States - environment, global governance, international terrorism, and nuclear proliferation, among others - have not changed.

Sure, the European Union can do more than live up to yesterday's hype, but a Europe that rediscovers itself will find that its best ideals still stir hearts and change minds.

Here is some of what is on the line. First, Europe is a major voice for foreign-policy idealism. This voice negotiates through constructive dialogue, backed by economic and political incentives.

Right now, though, that policy-making is coming unglued. Regional powers at the edges of the European Union are using the current malaise to reset priorities and reshuffle alliances. Stefan Fule, the EU enlargement and neighborhood policy commissioner, recently warned that "Ankara's foreign policy is expanding even faster than Turkish Airlines is expanding its global network." Meanwhile, new Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich increasingly sees Russian policy as his own.

Second, the EU offers a practical approach to making decisions, through internal deliberations, ensuring that all members have some say in policy formation, and bargaining forums that reconcile differences. An almost magical process, it has yielded agreement on policy among more than 27 countries.

But now, in Belgium, the host of most EU institutions, reenergized political forces are conjuring the old European demons of ethnic conflict to challenge that formula. Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, a separatist party that won the most seats in parliament in the June election, claims his victory shows that the country is now "splitting itself into two whole democracies."

It couldn't happen at a worse time. A United States increasingly paralyzed by rancorous and partisan politics could use some of that old consensus-producing magic.

Third, there is the European model of social solidarity. It provides basic protections against life's inevitabilities - illness, loss of work, old age, social exclusion - and aims, as a matter of conscience, to reduce broad inequalities of wealth and poverty. Today, this model, too, is under siege.

While the European Union estimates that 17 percent of its population, or 80 million citizens, lives under the poverty line, governments in Eastern and Southern Europe, where many of those people live, are fighting the new Europe 2020 plan, which is designed to cushion the hardships associated with this poverty.

If Europe continues to surrender its social ambitions, ordinary Americans will be among the casualties. Without the example set by Europe of universal health care, our Congress would hardly have extended health insurance to 30 million uninsured Americans this year.

Finally, America needs a confident, dynamic, and engaged Europe because America itself is undergoing a crisis of confidence. Overcoming this and other crises will not consist of wondering who tried harder, who made worse mistakes, or who had the tougher luck. It will mean mastering lessons from the past and doing better in the future - something both the United States and Europe have been very good at.

If we have learned anything in the past 10 years, it is that whatever the challenges ahead are, the United States cannot meet them alone. A Europe that fully re-embraces its extraordinary mission is part of the solution.

Despite the upbeat declarations of a few years ago, Europe probably won't run the 21st century. But in a competitive, multipolar world, a self-assured and successful European Union - with its remarkable achievement in transforming the continent and its vision for the wider world - can strengthen the United States. What Europe has to offer the 21st century matters more than ever.

• Michael Burri teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

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