The Washington Post Column

Europe’s Birthday Blahs

  • Berlin

If you didn’t notice that last Sunday was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Union, don’t worry: Most Europeans didn’t either. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the rotating European presidency, did invite all 27 heads of state to hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and it’s true that at one designated Berlin nightclub, the Europeans of tomorrow danced to music played by DJs from all 27 countries. Fireworks went off as well, 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 member states believe that life has become worse since their countries joined the E.U., and only 25 percent think life has improved.

What is odd about the gloom is the fact 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 increased. 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 — enjoy 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 E.U. itself but the E.U.’s national governments: To put it bluntly, Europe at the moment has an exceptionally weak group of national leaders. The 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 Merkel as well as many of the East Europeans, have to rely on unstable coalitions and minimal public support. Whether it’s the fault of their proportional electoral systems or just plain 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 Muslim 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 actually lies in the language of the Berlin Declaration itself, and in particular with that “Idea of Europe.” Fifty years since its founding, the E.U. has created many things: a free-trade zone, a common currency and a lot of common regulations. But it has not, as 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 one hopes 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, therefore no agreement about what the “Idea” should be — not even an agreement that it should somehow relate to the continent’s “Christian” or even “Judeo-Christian” heritage. Most Germans know a lot more about American 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 at all — and rightly so.

Indeed, if Europe promised nothing more than, say, antitrust 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 hundredth anniversary in 2057 will even be more upbeat.