The 50-Year Itch

Why are EU member states so underwhelmed by the organization’s achievements?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

BERLIN—If you didn’t notice that Sunday, March 25, was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Union, don’t worry, most Europeans didn’t notice either. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who currently holds the rotating European presidency, did invite all 27 heads of state to hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and it’s true that in one designated Berlin nightclub, the Europeans of tomorrow danced to music played by DJs from all 27 countries. Fireworks went off, and, of course, a document was signed—the “Berlin Declaration,” which described Europe as “an Idea, a hope for freedom and understanding.”

Still, an aura of gloom hung over the whole affair, as it does over the whole continent, at least whenever the Idea of Europe is pondered. A cross-continental 50th-anniversary poll found that 56 percent of Europeans believe that “the European Union does not represent ordinary people.” More disturbing was another poll, which revealed that some 44 percent of Europeans in the most populous EU member states believe that life has gotten worse since their country joined the organization, and only 25 percent think life has improved.

What is odd about the gloom is that, objectively speaking, life in Europe has unquestionably improved. Five decades ago, before it became a city of chic clubs, much of Berlin was still in ruins. In Britain, food rationing had just ended. The eastern half of the continent was dominated by thuggish and incompetent communist dictatorships. Yet over the next half-century, living standards grew at an astounding rate, health improved, life expectancy lengthened. Now, there is no war, no rationing, no communism. Contrary to the common American perception, much of the continent and most notably the east—Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic states—enjoys exceptionally high growth rates. The German economy is on the upswing, and the British economy booms. To drive home the point, one British politician last week published a list of 55 good things wrought by European integration, including “cheaper phone calls,” “clean beaches,” and “my two parliamentary assistants, Constance, from France, and Raquel, from Spain.” So, what, exactly, has gotten worse?

Part of the explanation for the gloom is not the European Union itself, but the national governments. To put it bluntly, Europe is led at the moment by an exceptionally weak group of national leaders. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, damaged by scandal and his support of the now-unpopular Iraq war, is on his last legs; so is the unpopular and ineffective French president, Jacques Chirac, whose term ends this spring. Others, including Chancellor Merkel, as well as many of the Eastern Europeans, have to rely on unstable coalitions and minimal public support. Whether it’s the fault of their proportional-representation electoral systems or just coincidence, they do not, at the moment, make an impressive group photograph.

Part of the explanation also lies in the issues Europe now faces. It’s one thing to rebuild bombed-out bridges, quite another to figure out how to integrate the continent’s growing Islamic population: The former is an engineering problem, the latter a cultural, legal, and religious debate that can never produce consensus. Equally, it’s one thing to build a social-welfare state with great enthusiasm and fanfare and another to dismantle even tiny slices of it, as many are now (or should be) doing.

But an important part of the problem lies in the language of the Berlin Declaration itself, and in particular with that “Idea of Europe.” In the 50 years since its founding, the European Union has created many things: a free-trade zone, a common currency, and a lot of common regulations. But it has not, as of yet, created anything resembling an Idea, or even a sense of truly shared destiny.

Perhaps this is to be expected. The continent is still divided by culture and especially by language—and hopefully always will be: That diversity is Europe’s strength as well as its charm. But as a result, there are no common media, no shared political debate, and therefore no agreement about what the “Idea” should be—not even an agreement that it should somehow relate to the continent’s “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” heritage. Most Germans know a lot more about U.S. politics than they do about the politics of the Czechs who live next door. Most people still feel more loyalty to, or at least interest in, the leaders they elected themselves than the European bureaucrats whose names they don’t know—and rightly so.

Indeed, if “Europe” promised nothing more than, say, decent anti-monopoly laws and the occasional performance of “Ode to Joy,” maybe the public wouldn’t find the whole project so disappointing. If, over the next 50 years, Europe’s leaders quietly drop the vague “Idea,” leaving that sort of thing to the national politicians and philosophers, maybe the 100th anniversary in 2057 will be more upbeat.