STOCKHOLM — History often moves with small steps, but such steps sometimes turn out to have big implications.
On Dec. 31, Sweden made history in a small way by ending the last rotating foreign and security policy presidency of the European Union. After years of rotation every six months, we handed the job over to the EU’s new permanent structures, established in Brussels in accordance with the Lisbon Treaty.
What might look like a small step for mankind is certainly a giant leap for Europe.
Those with a sense of history will also see the significance of Europe’s nation states, which not long ago fought each other continuously, now pooling their foreign policies in order to assert them more vigorously on the global stage.
The years since the European revolutions of 1989 have been a period of extraordinary success for the rapidly evolving EU. The EU has expanded from only 12 members then to 27 today, and has brought stability and new prosperity to approximately 100 million people in the eastern and central parts of the Continent. The introduction of the euro by a number of them — Estonia is likely to follow shortly — has also been a remarkable success story.
It is, to a large degree, the magnetism of the EU model that, during these two decades, transformed Europe from perhaps the world’s leading security problem to one of the most important global partners on virtually any issue.
But what the future will bring is by no means predetermined. In essence, it boils down to whether Europe in the decades ahead will be seen as a model for the future or as a museum of the past. Decisions taken during the next few years will be crucial to determining the outcome.
To be a model for the future, Europe’s governments and peoples must remain committed to an open Europe in an open world. In more practical terms, that means continuing to honor Article 49 of the Treaty of Rome, which keeps the door to membership open to any European country willing and able to share the EU’s values, interests and policies.
About 150 million people in southeastern Europe — the Western Balkans, Ukraine and Turkey — aim at becoming EU citizens. Membership will obviously take time, but the accession process will drive modernization and democratic reform in a way that will strengthen all of Europe. A Europe that closes its door to those willing and able to enter will be a Europe that diminishes its own future.
Equally important is a renewed commitment to economic reform in the EU itself. Economic success or failure in the decade up to 2020 will be another critical element in whether we are seen as a model or as a museum. This will require a more committed approach than that pursued under the so-called Lisbon Agenda during the past decade.
It remains a shame that only two of the EU’s 27 countries have met the target of spending 2 percent of GDP on research and development. It is imperative that the EU build societies that are seen as global leaders in social, political, and technological innovation — all will be urgently needed in the transition to the low-carbon economy that is coming.
An open Europe must also be fully committed to an open global economy. A sustainable globalization process is not only a paramount interest for Europe itself, but also the only way that we can continue to lift billions of people out of poverty and create better foundations for the rule of the law and global governance in countries still lacking in these respects.
This will require a Europe able to build deep strategic relationships with all the key players in our increasingly multipolar world. The year that has just passed has demonstrated — in the handling of the financial crisis and in trying to tackle climate change — both the need for and the difficulties of creating a new paradigm of global governance. Small elite bodies like the Group of Eight no longer work, but neither do mammoth meetings of the sort we saw in Copenhagen.
The EU has cooperation and integration embedded in its very DNA. That is why it truly has the potential to be a model not only for its own region, but also globally. Few things will be needed more in the years to come.
If we are to succeed, we must make the most of our new Lisbon institutions, maintain our commitment to an open Europe, accelerate reform of our economies, and take the lead in forging a new framework for global governance that supports a truly sustainable process of continued globalization.
Nothing less will do.
Carl Bildt is foreign minister of Sweden.© 2010 Project Syndicate
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