Europe: A dead horse worth beating
The European Union is about to celebrate 50 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome. But it embarks on its second 50 years with a distinctly moribund aura. Here's why this once-upon-a-time Euro-sceptic hopes Europe doesn't turn its back on the EU.
On March 25, the European Union will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the document that established the institution.
Will it make it another 50 years? Or will the institutions, leadership and vision for a united Europe decline from 'moribund', as the papers have it recently, to just plain dead?
The 1957 signing ceremony of the Treaty of Rome (Source: official EU photo)
But Europe's political leaders openly acknowledge there's not much real work to be done until we see who will be representing France for the next five years.
"(German Chancellor) Angela Merkel is well-placed and well-oriented, but with the French elections, nothing is possible," Italian President Romano Prodi told France 24 television earlier this month.
So it will actually fall to Portugal, which takes over the EU presidency on July 1 and Slovenia, lined up for January 1, 2008, to get the now 27 ducks in a row for the European parliamentary elections in 2009.
Frankly, if I were Slovenia, I'd feel pretty tired before I even got started.
But here's why I hope it rallies to the occasion to save an institution, an ideal, whose beauty is still apparent and whose future is still important.
The dead horse
There's no denying that united Europe's present is looking grim, at least from a French point of view.
Turkey is still fuming over France's slap in the form of a law forbidding anyone to deny that the Turks practiced genocide of the Armenians during WWI. Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has outright rejected the possibility of Turkey's entry into the Union.
I'd bet much of France would have liked to shut out Bulgaria and Romania too, but it was too late. President Jacques Chirac was forced to welcome them on January 1 as "fellow European citizens", returned to the bosom of their historical "family".
But if they are part of the family, they are the cousins that no one really wants to invite to Christmas dinner. France has opened only 62 types of jobs in seven economic categories to workers from these two new EU members, as well as the eight other former Communist countries that joined the EU in 2004.
Sarkozy wants to pass some kind of "mini-treaty" in place of the rejected Constitution and Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal wants another referendum on a revised treaty in 2009. Both options are annoying to France's neighbors who thought the first try was good enough.
And, while all this nothing is happening, who makes their move? The far right, which launched its own pan-Europe bloc in the European parliament under the motto "Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty"; the bloc is headed by Mussolini's granddaughter and Bruno Gollnisch, who has recently been convicted of denying the Holocaust by a French court.
I've looked around pretty hard for good news to counter all this. I've come up short.
The fanatical convert
But I hope that Europe gets it together again soon, if not to actually pass the current constitutional treaty than to move onto some other big, enthusiastic Plan B. And I say this as a long-time Euro-sceptic.
I first met the man now my husband in 1992, the year the Treaty of Maastricht passed to create the current EU institutional structure. It was also the first appearance of wide-scale euroscepticism, and not just from visiting American students, but from member-states: France approved the Treaty with but 51.4 percent 'Yes' voters.
My husband was a gung-ho believer in a united Europe. He still is — he's out there today in the rain under a blue umbrella with 13 yellow stars.
I myself could never see past the logistical problems: all those languages, British intransigence over the euro, French intransigence over agricultural subsidies, the lack of a real, unifying raison d'être other than economic protectionism. A Common Market, I could understand, but aspiring for anything more from this collection of feuding, fussing, factions always seemed to me a doomed exercise.
Advocates like my husband will say they share a common culture, but I still don't see it. Do Bulgaria and France really have any more in common than the United States and Canada? And no one is arguing for anything nobler from NAFTA than reduced duty taxes.
But then, last year, I went to visit Alsace, a region of France that has changed hands from France to Germany and back again. To get there, I had to cross the Lorraine, the site of so much Franco-German slaughter.
And, all of a sudden, passing bunker after bunker after cemetery after cemetery, I got it: these two people have spent much of their histories trying to kill each off in increasingly gruesome ways. And now they are united behind the one, binding sentiment of "Never again."
Unquestioned peace forever among peoples who once sought hard for reasons to hurt each other. That's what the European Union is about.
When I visited the Parliament buildings in Strasbourg, inspired by a painting of the Tower of Babel and now decorated with welcome message in all of Europe's languages, I could see the beauty that captivates my husband.
Angela Merkel said it better this week in a speech to the EU Parliament in Strasbourg (click here for the speech in English in its entirety):
"Europe's soul is tolerance. Europe is the continent of tolerance.
We have taken centuries to learn this. On the way to tolerance we had to endure cataclysms. We persecuted and destroyed one another. We ravaged our homeland. We jeopardized the things we revered.
Not even one generation has passed since the worst period of hate, devastation and destruction. That was perpetrated in the name of my people.
Our history over the centuries certainly gives us in Europe absolutely no right to look down on the people and regions of the world who have problems practising tolerance today. Yet our history over the centuries obliges us in Europe to promote tolerance throughout Europe and across the globe and to help everyone practise it."
If Europe's soul is tolerance, than its pilgrims are all of those European citizens who have seized the opportunity to cross a border and overcome the still considerable linguistic, cultural and administrative hurdles involved in becoming real citizens of Europe.
Every British reader of Expatica now living in France — and every French expat who has decamped for London or Ireland — is part of this phenomenon; you are all the living beating heart of "Tolerant Europe", unburdened by old prejudices, invigorated by new challenges, and, hopefully, undaunted by mere politics.
All you Britons who have arrived in France over the past 15 years are not a symptom of Europe or a side-effect, you're the whole point.
And in another 50 years, your children and grandchildren will have lived their whole lives not only secure in the knowledge that European nations will not start killing each other again, but with a true multinational, multilingual heritage unknown to any previous generation.
So if the European constitution — and the forward momentum it represents — is a dead horse, I hope you keep it on life support until a new treatment is found.
January 19, 2007
Subject: Living in France, European constitution, Angela Merkel, EU, Treaty of Rome