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Europe: The EU At 40--A 'Mid-Life Crisis?' An Analysis

Prague, 24 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Forty years ago tomorrow, the leaders of six West European countries met in Rome to sign a document that created the European Economic Community.

Two of the six countries -- Germany and Italy -- had been defeated by the Allies in World War II. The four others -- Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands-- had been defeated and occupied by Nazi Germany. In Rome, they all pledged never to take up arms against each other again. They also committed themselves to the goal of "ever closer union among the peoples of Europe," thereby establishing a process of gradual economic -- and, in recent years, political -- integration that has led to today's European Union.

Tomorrow, in the same room where the Treaty of Rome was signed on March 25, 1957, foreign ministers of the EU's member states -- which now number 15 -- will meet to celebrate its 40th birthday. As they lift their champagne glasses, they will have much cause for satisfaction. War among EU members has become highly improbable, some analysts even say "unimaginable." Economic integration has come a long way, with the installation -- although far from complete -- of a single market, and the likely launching -- although with great pain -- of monetary union and a single currency in 21 months' time. Even EU political integration has been proclaimed officially and outlined in another formal document, the 1993 Maastricht Treaty that turned the Community into a Union.

Yet, as EU officials themselves readily admit, there is at least as much cause for worry over the organization's future as there is reason to celebrate its past. The mood at the Union's headquarters is down, with the real power in EU having shifted in recent years from Brussels to the capitals of its larger members -- notably, Germany, France and Britain. The Union's federalist momentum -- that is, its movement toward greater integration -- has slowed almost to a dead stand-still. And with 10 Central and East European candidate nations -- plus Cyprus, and perhaps soon Turkey -- seeking rapid entry, the EU has thus far been unable to agree on basic internal reforms necessary for so great an expansion. Even the successful birth of the European Monetary Union (EMU), due at the start of January 1999, is being increasingly called into question.

Candid leaders of member states admit publicly that the EU is currently undergoing what some call a "period of stagnation," others a great "malaise," and still others "a mid-life crisis." The latter term was uttered last week in a memorable speech in the Dutch city of Utrecht by Ireland's President Mary Robinson, who said that "thinking of (the 40th) anniversary in human terms, it could coincide with a mid-life crisis."

Paraphrasing the Irish Nobel-Laureate poet W.B. Yeats, Robinson declared: "For the center to hold, (the EU) must have a deeper significance. Europe (must) find its soul....There needs to be a community of values which earns the allegiance of its citizens. They must feel at heart that it stands for something. We need to develop that vital sense of connectedness with which we can go forward together."

Implicit in Robinson's language was the sense -- shared by many officials and analysts today -- that, in Yeats' phrase, the EU's "center does not hold." Also clear was the conviction -- similarly shared by many -- that citizens of the Union's member states feel increasingly alienated from what are contemptuously called the "bureaucrats of Brussels." Polls in member states as important as Germany and France show little enthusiasm for monetary union or other means of greater integration. In fact, rightly or wrongly, large numbers of West Europeans are blaming the EU for the widespread high unemployment and slow economic growth in its member states. The more jobs lost in EU nations, the more the EU is held to account -- wrongly, in the view of most economists, but nonetheless strongly for that.

An English-language adage has it that "life begins at 40." What seems clear about the EU's current crisis is that, whatever life it has after 40, it will be considerably different from the life it has had so far. With a Union comprising four times as many states as those which assembled in Rome in 1957 now a possibility by the year 2005, the EU is going to have to alter its nature radically. Some say it will become little more than a vast free-trade zone, which would please Britain but not many other members. Some predict a more flexible or "two-tier" EU, which would allow some countries to integrate faster than others. But almost all agree that, to preserve the union, it will have to be changed.