European Union leaders held a peaceful two-day summit in Stockholm last weekend. After the bitter row in Nice last year, a show of unity was as important as any concrete results. The EU leaders got that, and a little more. But the bar must be raised if Europe is to play a larger role in global affairs. There are lingering doubts about the EU’s ability to do that.
The Nice summit highlighted the growing tension at the heart of Europe. The Franco-German axis that has driven unification has weakened. A new generation of leaders, and the new political and economic realities that they must contend with, have brought about fundamental changes in the relationship between Paris and Berlin. Accommodating those changes has been difficult. At Nice, tensions boiled over.
This time, the temperature was considerably cooler. Credit Stockholm in spring, or perhaps it was the approach of Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, who chaired the meeting. No matter which, European leaders left Stockholm with a brighter outlook than they left Nice four months ago.
Changed economic circumstances are part of the explanation. The summit’s final communique declared that Europe’s “economic fundamentals remain sound” and looked forward to 3 percent growth over the next few years, a sharp contrast to the considerably darker outlook in Japan and the United States. The European economy has been growing for four straight years, creating 2.5 million jobs and pushing unemployment to the lowest level in a decade. With Japan and the U.S., which together account for nearly a third of the global economy, on the brink of recession, the EU needs to be ready to take up the slack.
Although there has been striking progress, more has to be done. At this year’s summit, heads of state set a deadline to liberalize postal services and agreed to create a single market in financial services in four years, although details have yet to be filled in. There were claims that a deal was struck on creating a single air traffic control system in the EU, but that seems to have hung up on a dispute between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar. Hopes of an EU-wide patent were dashed, as were plans to set a timetable for liberalizing energy markets. France held that up, reportedly over fears of protests by its powerful public utilities unions. If the official forecast of 3 percent growth is to prevail over private economists’ predictions of 2.5 percent, reform is a must.
To raise their profile in another field, EU leaders decided to send a mission to the Korean Peninsula to support reconciliation between the North and the South. Mr. Persson, traveling as EU president, would lead a delegation to Pyongyang and Seoul, along with External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten and foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
And, as always, there are problems that demand the immediate attention of EU leaders. At Stockholm, the mounting epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease intruded upon the agenda. Although Britain and Ireland have been hardest hit, the appearance of cases on the Continent and the soaring costs guarantee that a Union-wide solution is only a matter of time.
EU heads were also again forced to deal with a conflict in the Balkans. The summit convened as the government in Macedonia launched an offensive against Albanian rebels. The EU leaders voiced support for the government and promised political, economic and military assistance. The Balkans continue to be Europe’s Achilles’ heel. During the ’90s, the EU’s inability to contain the conflict in the former Yugoslavia exposed the Union’s pretensions to great power status as a sham. That failure prompted the EU to create the rapid reaction force for use in such emergencies. It only exists on paper, however.
The rapid reaction force, like the Korean diplomatic initiative, is a double-edged sword. Every effort must be made to help build peace on the Korean Peninsula, but Europe must tread carefully. Given the skepticism that U.S. President George W. Bush has voiced about North Korean intentions, this high-profile intervention could easily create new tensions between the U.S. and Europe. Similar worries swirl around the rapid reaction force. European military activism must not threaten its partnership with the U.S.
There is another danger, however: The failure to deliver on those initiatives could expose the emptiness of EU ambitions. The EU is reaching the limits of its old decision-making formula. The Europe of six is vastly different from today’s 15, and the two dozen members of the future. Europe’s chief concern is devising a new decision-making structure. Without one, last week’s summit in Stockholm will be a landmark — one of the last civil summits in the EU’s history.
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