Action, Not Words : In a Europe That Remains Divided, the Time Is Ripe for Real Political Leadership. Too Bad That It's Nowhere to Be Found

Article excerpt

They are back from Umbria and Tuscany, from Perigord and Provence. Their tans, so lovingly burnished in the warm south, are losing their luster. If it isn't raining in London and Paris, Brussels and Berlin, it soon will be. Autumn is upon us, and Europe's political leaders are about to get to work.

At least, let's hope they are, for there is much to do. If Europe is to assume the geopolitical role for which it is abundantly equipped, it is going to have to discover some real political leadership. Yet the immediate prospects for doing so are poor.

To be sure, the European economy is humming along merrily, with growth in the Euroland 11 now forecast to be about 2 percent this year. Ireland continues to grow at speeds more appropriate to pre-1997 Asia, while Finland churns out high-tech ideas that get rave reviews even in such a booster of Silicon Valley as Wired magazine. Unemployment, though still too high, is everywhere in steady retreat. Measured only by statistics, or by the palpable sense of European prosperity--all those long vacations and mobile phones that the rest of the world would kill for--the old continent has rarely looked better.

As long, that is, as you define "Europe" in a particular way. For 10 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the continent remains divided. To truly integrate Europe is an enterprise that calls for immediate, decisive, action. Certainly, there have been gains in the lands to the east of the old Iron Curtain; Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have joined the ranks of the developed economies, even if the Czechs have recently been in a deep recession. But elsewhere, the economic picture in East and Central Europe is nothing to celebrate. The three Baltic states will see almost no growth this year. Romania's trade was severely disrupted by the Kosovo war. Belarus is a basket case; somewhere in Minsk, someone is still making parts for those Soviet-era tractors that were meant to break the soil of the steppe but often just broke down. And Ukraine--with 50 million people- -belongs in the category of "beyond basket case." Its economy is still largely a stranger to those reforms that have lifted incomes elsewhere, and a tricky presidential election looms.

And that's the good news. For really dismal tidings, consider Russia, whose economy is a corrupt shambles. Rumors swirl around a sick and ineffective Boris Yeltsin. Unpredictable elections beckon for both the Duma and the presidency. Or take a look at the Balkans--after eight years of war, no nearer political stability than when Yugoslavia started to fall apart. Optimists measure the time they think that peacekeeping forces will have to stay there by decades; pessimists wonder when the next Balkan war will begin.

This division of Europe is morally objectionable. For two generations, West Europeans were the lucky beneficiaries of the cold war, protected by American arms, able to integrate their economies without having to worry about Polish peasants or Serb steelworkers. For all that time, Western Europe's leaders got misty-eyed over the distant prospect of a continent whole and free. With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, they were asked to match deeds to words. So far, they have failed. Ten years on, not a single nation of the old communist bloc has yet joined the EU. (Who would have guessed that NATO, and not the Union, would first open its doors to members of the Warsaw Pact?) Of course, aligning the economies of East and Central Europe with the obligations of EU membership is not easy; and to be sure, negotiations for the accession of six nations to the Union are underway. But the pace has been miserably slow.

That has to change. The willingness of the EU to shoulder some responsibility for its "near abroad" is the only real measure by which we can judge if the EU is able to take its place in the first rank of world powers. Yet a decisive commitment to the steady integration of East and Central Europe will not happen without real political leadership. …