LONDON — Since the original European Common Market was founded in the mid-1950s, the Continent sought a common economic role, to be followed by growing political integration. Now, there is general agreement on the first count that a new institutional framework is needed to give the community more political punch, and a convention has been called under former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing to study reform. Some countries think Europe should have a president at the top of the European Union rather than the present commission in Brussels.

That, however, is clearly a process that will involve much debate, given the questions of national sovereignty involved. But, if politics is the more difficult of the two European tasks, the development of economic cohesion appeared to be reaching a point of fruition through the creation of a single market, and then through the introduction of a common currency that moved into the everyday life of the people of the 12 member nations with the introduction of euro notes and coins at the beginning of this year.

But now, as political uncertainties grow, so, too, economic progress is also being affected. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that, as the EU gears up to accept new members from East and Central Europe from 2004, the power of the big states is making itself felt once again in a way that runs counter to the hopes of the more federal prophets of a united Europe.

This has an importance reaching beyond Europe itself, further strengthening by default Washington’s international presence, and making it more difficult for a counter-balance to be created to what a former French foreign minister terms the “hyperpower” of the United States.

On foreign policy, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s old question of whom he should telephone if he wanted to know Europe’s position has been shown to remain valid, with the wide variety of reaction to American policy toward Iraq. The Europeans certainly share a preference for multinational, rule-based decision making rather than the unilateral, decide-it- as-we-go-along approach many of them detect in the way the White House and the Pentagon view foreign affairs.

But, within that broad preference for the United Nations over solo American action, there are wide differences. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is proving the best friend of U.S. President George W. Bush — he may have used that relationship to good effect in getting the president to go to the U.N. to lay down his conditions to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but nobody can tell how great London’s influence really is. At the other extreme, Germany’s chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, struck a highly antiwar stance in the recent narrow national election, drawing on the deep doubts of the electorate to win a victory that had seemed out of his grasp only a couple of months earlier. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is anxious to be friends with Washington, but French President Jacques Chirac opposes the use of force as currently envisaged by Washington, and both France and Germany are critical of U.S. support for Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

In each case, national leaders are, quite properly in democratic terms, reflecting the feelings in their countries as shown in opinion polls. One recent survey showed that anti-Americanism was not nearly as widespread in Europe as some commentators in Washington have assumed. At the same time, each European government has been keen to carve out its own position on Iraq, not only vis-a-vis Washington, but also between themselves.

With each foreign ministry singing from its own hymn sheet, and the commission in Brussels having its say, too, the result has been a lack of clarity that makes it all too easy for hawks in the Bush administration to dismiss the situation as another sign of the failure of Europe to play an international political role in keeping with its economic strength. Their criticism is usually buttressed by observations about the lack of willingness of European taxpayers to contribute to building up a military force capable of delivering the appropriate international punch.

This autumn has also brought signs of tension over one of the most basic objectives — the enlargement of the EU to include former Soviet bloc countries. In particular, the extension of subsidy arrangements to the new entrants risks breaking the EU budget, but the candidate countries want to be treated as equals, while big recipients of agricultural and social aid, like France, Italy and Spain, are keen to hang on to what they now get.

On top of this, the electorate in Ireland rejected the Nice Treaty on enlargement in a referendum last year, and is due to vote again this autumn. If they repeat their earlier verdict, a pall will be cast over the whole enlargement process, with polls showing growing opposition in some other countries.

More immediately, the power of national government was seen very clearly at the end of September when the commission in Brussels agreed to relax the rules laid down for the elimination of budget surpluses by the 12 states belonging to the euro zone. A target of 2004 had been set up in more prosperous economic times. Now Germany, France and Italy are under severe budget pressure as public spending remains high and slower growth, together with tax cuts by rightwing governments, reduces government revenue. Countries like Spain and the Netherlands that had reorganized their budgets to meet the original criteria are unhappy. But there are doubts if France will even hit the new target date of 2006, as Chirac insists on boosting spending on law-and-order and defense by twice the inflation rate and cutting income tax by 30 percent over five years. In the Continent’s biggest economy, Germany, a steep economic downturn has boosted the deficit this year to almost 3 percent.

This is bad news for those who saw the euro as a source of budget discipline, and must bring into question one of the fundamental bases on which the common currency was built. At the same time, the European Central Bank that administers monetary policy in the 12-nation area is hobbled by having only one stated objective — the fight against inflation. At a time when European growth has decreased almost by half, this hardly seems the right single priority for the bank that sets interest rates across the zone.

Such inner problems, together with growing alienation between voters and the politicians who stand for election, as shown by rising abstention rates, lie behind Europe’s difficulties in playing the world role alongside the U.S. to which it aspires. Britain, which remains outside the euro zone, is usually held up as the example of a country that will not surrender sovereignty to play its full part in the European club. But, without falling in with the ranks of British Euroskeptics, it is plain that other major nations are also intent on pursuing their own interests.

Commentators, politicians and Americans will continue to talk of “Europe” as if was a single entity but, with the commission in Brussels generally perceived as being weak, the question is just what that word means. The challenge for the future will be to retrieve the common purpose that animated the first decades of the European project without making governments feel they have stepped over the edge of loss of sovereignty. That will require political skill and toughness like that shown by the original architects of postwar European cooperation. The trouble is that, on recent showing, the Continent is sorely short of men or women up to playing the part.

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