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New Power for 'Old Europe' | The Nation

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New Power for 'Old Europe'

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The New Power of 'Old Europe'

About the Author

Mark Schapiro
Mark Schapiro is a longtime environmental journalist and lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate...

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When Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State for President Ford in 1977, he famously asked in frustration, "What telephone number do you dial to reach Europe?" Today, the area code for that number is clear: 32-2, for Brussels, which has been transformed from the provincial capital of a small European country into an international metropolis bustling with a multilingual, highly educated EU workforce drawn from across the continent.

The European Union has its roots in a simple "coal and steel pact" signed between France and Germany in 1951 to facilitate trade in those critical commodities to aid in postwar reconstruction. Over the subsequent decades of the cold war, an integrated Europe was supported by the United States as a restraint on Germany's resurgence and a critical Western bulwark against the expansion of the Soviet Union.

The pact would later evolve into the Common Market and, finally, into the political and economic powerhouse of today's European Union. For the first time in history, a superpower has emerged that is not based on nationalistic ambitions or military power but upon a voluntary submission of national aspirations to a transnational authority. Its architects were well aware of the EU's departure from the usual march of political history: Jacques Delors, the visionary European Commission president from 1985 to 1994, used to refer lightheartedly to the evolving Union as an "Unidentified Political Object."

On foreign affairs, Europeans continue to have trouble speaking with one voice--as the divisions in Europe over the US invasion of Iraq showed. But on domestic matters, the EU speaks for Europe--and it is those initiatives, emanating from Brussels, that are sending powerful messages across the Atlantic. "In Europe today, we are seeing a focal point of regulatory action other than the United States that, for the first time in the postwar period, is driving world markets," says David Wirth, a trade law specialist who negotiated the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion on behalf of the United States and is currently director of international studies at Boston College Law School.

Indeed, a broad spectrum of American industry has already felt the potency that comes from an integrated market and differing standards of environmental and consumer protection. Microsoft, for example, was fined $497 million earlier this year by the EU for its "anti-competitive practices," and General Electric's long-planned takeover of Honeywell was skewered in 2002 by the EU's Competition Commission, which has now emerged as a critical first stop by corporations en route to a merger. "It used to be," comments Amelia Torres, spokeswoman for the Competition Commission, "that the EU would be the last part of any deal. Now they know they have to come here first." The agribusiness company Monsanto became accustomed to contentious forays into Brussels while struggling to obtain EU acceptance of its genetically engineered seeds.

EU politics are a complicated business; the Parliament is as tumultuous a democratic body as any. The recent controversy over the nomination of a new European justice commissioner with extreme views on women and homosexuals illustrated some of the social and political frictions that continue to divide Europeans, a passing storm to which much of the American media responded with smug condescension. These developments came on the heels of a European parliamentary election last June that drastically changed the composition of the legislature: Ten new member countries, most from the orbit of the former Soviet Union, sent delegations to the Parliament; 50 percent of the MEPs who won election had never before served in Brussels. But these changes show little sign of derailing the regulatory policies that are now embedded in the EU's machinery of government.

Now that Europe has a phone number, US ardor for integration has begun to cool. "The White House is questioning whether it's a good idea for Europe to be speaking with one voice," says Fraser Cameron, who served with the European Commission's delegation to Washington until 2002 and is now director of studies at the European Policy Center in Brussels.

Cameron points out that the United States and the European Union remain each other's most significant trading partners in the world--our entanglements are deep and abiding. But as Europe becomes a more assertive political force, the question will become, as he puts it, "Why shouldn't Americans enjoy the same standards as Europeans?"

Such a basic question used to run in the other direction, when the United States set the gold standard for the world's environmental health. And the answer strikes at the core of the Bush Administration's most savored narratives--that we, alone, are masters of our nation's fate.

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