E Who? the Elusive EU Identity

Article excerpt

The recent transatlantic split over Iraq found America at odds with much of Europe. But what exactly is Europe? Europeans are still trying to define that identity. And some will posit an answer mid- June, when the European Union constitutional convention in Brussels comes to a close.

The EU began in the 1950s as a humble steel and coal trading community among six countries: Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Over the years, it expanded its membership and political and economic activities, officially becoming the European Union in 1992. Today, 12 of its 15 members have replaced their national currency with a common one, the euro. And 10 countries from Eastern and Central Europe are poised to join next year.

The establishment of a European constitution should be a momentous occasion - the pinnacle of 50 years of postwar reconciliation and cooperation that also heralds a 21st century power to rival the dominance of the US. Instead, the convention is headed for anticlimactic closure without having engaged and energized the Europeans it represents, and without having generated significant interest outside the EU. The document that emerges is unlikely to define Europe categorically because it can't possibly reconcile the very real political, economic, and geographical divisions that exist among member countries.

The Constitution, intended to clarify and codify the EU's role and responsibilities, has failed to inspire Europeans because its institutions remain distant, physically and metaphorically, from the people they represent. The buildings that house the European Commission, Parliament, and Council - steel and glass behemoths easily mistaken for large corporate offices - are far from the Brussels city center. It's also difficult for citizens to visit their European parliamentary representatives (the only directly elected EU officials), because Parliament meets in Strasbourg, Brussels, and Luxembourg.

Moreover, many Europeans simply don't feel that they have control over the institutions and "Eurocrats" that are increasingly governing them.

The Commission, Parliament, and Council formulate and implement a variety of rules and regulations. This acquis communitaire, now some 80,000 pages, governs food and safety laws - regulating everything from teeth-whitening procedures to genetically modified organisms - as well as common customs procedures, economic policies, and many other areas.

This harmonization has certainly brought benefits to member states and their citizens; it is easier for them to study, travel, and do business in Europe. But some worry that European regulations have trumped local laws. The European Commission refuted a persistent rumor that EU safety regulations might do away with Britain's double-decker buses, insisting that such laws would only apply to new buses. …