• 2007-03-28

cartoon by Jevgenijs CHeKSTERS

To some it would seem wildly ironic, to others comically appropriate, that the original architects of the European community 's convening in 1957 at the Chateau de Val Duchesse on the outskirts of Brussels 's worked in utter secrecy, largely ignored public opinion (they feared a resurgent Charles De Gaulle), and later in Rome were stymied when the printing house failed to print the document on time for the signing ceremony. In the end, the six signatories to the Treaty of Rome 's France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg 's inked an empty document.

Their efforts, however botched, have given the world, 50 years later, its largest economic bloc, encompassing 27 nations and 500 million people. One-third of the planet's gross domestic product comes from the European Union. Perhaps more unbelievably, 13 members share a common currency. Other potential members are knocking on the door, often insistently, to the extent that no one knows when, or where, to stop.

And why wouldn't they? The examples of post-Franco Spain, or isolated Ireland, clearly show how EU membership can foster development and help poorer European nations significantly raise their standards of living. There are still plenty of poor countries in the neighborhood 's Albania, Macedonia, Ukraine, Georgia 's and they too want to be touched by the EU miracle. And they may get their wish. As expansion commissioner Olli Rehn said last week, "Never say 'never.'"

But a half-century on, the EU is facing an identity crisis. A small club created for the sake of trade and peace is now a slogging behemoth, unable to meet its own deadlines and fulfill its targets. Rapid expansion, an aging population, a cumbersome bureaucracy, persistently high unemployment, foreign policy shortcomings, and most recently, a "constitutional" quagmire, have left many wondering if the train has any steam left or has entered the realm of old age for good.
From these structural cracks has flowed the current obsession with renewal 's the Lisbon Strategy, the Constitutional Treaty, Germany's Agenda 2010, and just last weekend, the Berlin Declaration, which calls for "placing the European Union on a renewed common basis before the European Parliament elections in 2009." The calls to "renew the political shape of Europe in keeping with the times" are unanimous and undisputed, to the extent that they appear to have become an end in themselves.
To be sure, renewal for any body politic is good, but Europe's health will ultimately boil down to economics. Is the bloc creating jobs and wealth? Can the union compete with the other two great economic centers, the United States and China? Is there sufficient innovation that will attract the world's brightest minds and add value to output?

The answer, in short, is no. And this is why, for the current leadership, the greatest failure of the EU was to give up on the Lisbon Strategy, whose aim was "to make Europe, by 2010, the most competitive and the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world." This goal is far more fundamental and pertinent to the European project than is the Constitutional Treaty 's an overly wordy batch of household rules 's and European leaders should re-focus their renewal efforts in this direction.