EU turns 50 but celebrations dampened by uncertainty over future

16:03, 12 November 2008
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In 50 years of the European Union...

As a law student in Lisbon in the late 1960s, Jose Manuel Barroso passed around an illicit copy of ``Je t`aime, Moi non plus`` a heavy-breathing French tune of a lovemaking couple that Portugal`s fascist dictator had banned as too racy, according to Economic Times.

 ``I could not buy the books I wanted. Or listen to the music I liked,`` said Barroso _ today the European Union`s top executive. ``My generation saw Europe as ... a destination for those who wanted freedom and democracy.``

In 50 years of the European Union, former dictatorships like Barroso`s Portugal, and more recently former Communist lands like Romania and Bulgaria, have joined the fold. And peace has been cemented across the region to such a degree that the very threat of war has been largely forgotten.

Yet as Europeans prepare to mark the half-century birthday with pomp and proclamations this month in Berlin, across the region many people are looking ahead with fear.

They feel angst about globalization, appear unable to implement reforms needed to regain its competitive edge, struggle to integrate millions of mostly Muslim immigrants, and grope for direction as the EU`s grand dreams of adopting a constitution that would formalize and deepen the union lie in tatters.

There have been momentous accomplishments: a single currency, elimination of internal borders, expansion into an economic giant that includes 490 million people in 27 nations _ 11 of them formerly fascist or communist dictatorships.

And many Europeans are proud of their social safety net, their long vacations, their short work-weeks, their high wages.

Yet it is some of these very achievements, and some of its members inflexible labor markets and highly-regulated economies, that are threatening to hold it back. Increasingly, both America and Asia seem better placed to compete.

Perhaps the EU`s chief goal, albeit one that was often unspoken, was making Europe safe from war _ but that succeeded so spectacularly that most people now take peace for granted.

``Sixty years of peace,`` Barroso acknowledged in an interview with the Associated Press, ``means the image of Europe as a bastion against war is losing its resonance.``

At their March 24-25 to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome that launched Europe`s common market, EU leaders are to issue a declaration they hope will reignite enthusiasm for the European project _ notably by reviving prospects for a constitution.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the summit`s host, faces a formidable task persuading fellow leaders that the charter _ which would streamline decision-making and raise the EU`s international profile by giving it a president and foreign minister _ was not killed off when the French and Dutch rejected it in referendums in 2005. France and Britain have lame-duck leaders in Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair _ further dimming the likelihood of a major constitutional breakthrough.

Yet many believe the hand-wringing over the charter is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise affecting the EU that is preventing it from adapting to the challenges of the new millennium _ in particular the rise of China and India as global powers.

Several European governments have attempted to reform Europe`s cushy labor and social welfare _ only to back down in the face of fierce protests.

``The European Union is going through a crisis,`` said Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, adding the French and Dutch `no` votes ``did not cause this crisis, but simply made it more visible.``

The EU crisis of confidence is also seen in the way momentum for expansion _ the chief way Europe has been able to use its philosophy of ``soft power`` to engineer democratic reforms in former dictatorships _ has all but petered out.

Polls show little public appetite for further enlarging the club to countries like Ukraine and Albania, let alone mostly Muslim Turkey _ whose membership talks were partially frozen a year after being launched in a dispute over Ankara`s non-recognition of EU member Cyprus.

Barroso had guarded optimism for the EU`s prospects in the 21st Century.

``Globalization is happening. Can we shape it to our interests and values? We believe we can,`` said Barroso but only if EU nations unite on challenges ranging ``from energy security to climate change to international terrorism.``

But some leading figures expressed a deeper sense of crisis. ``The European Union has not understood that it needs a complete change of direction,`` according to British Conservative George Osborne, the shadow finance minister of his Euro-skeptic party.

``It hasn`t understood that today the primary challenge we face is an economic one, not a political one. For my generation the question for Europe is not how to unite but how to compete _ not only within Europe, but with the rest of the world.``

One of the EU`s biggest challenges is its demographic crisis. By 2010, there will be more Europeans in their 60s than in their 20s. The EU`s working population will drop by 48 million by 2050, according to EU data.

Although 40 million people are seen to move into the EU in that same period ``immigration can only partially compensate for the effects of low fertility and extended life expectancy on the age distribution of the European population,`` according to a recent report by Eurostat, the EU statistics agency.

Unless the average birth of 1.5 children per female rises to 1.7, ``Europe will find it increasingly difficult to remain competitive and _ equally alarming _ to finance pensions,`` said EU Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla.

But changing demographics require reorganizing labor markets and social benefits.

To date, European governments have been slow to get Europeans to work longer hours and say `adieu` to six week vacations.

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