Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Jaw, jaw in Europe: evolution takes time (lots of it)

28 April 2003


When Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg sat down last week to talk about European defence co-operation, their efforts received a mixed reception. Some people were irritated, some derisive, some embarrassed, some sceptical and some, doubtless, quietly pleased.

What is noticeable about this is the apparent necessity to regard the meeting as significant. Its participants were not unaware of this necessity, of course. It was driven mostly by the press for whom, naturally, a story of this nature is not interesting unless significance can be wrung from it. According to some commentators press interest was the main point of this meeting anyway - to give the Belgian prime minister a photo opportunity on the international stage and so boost his chances of re-election.

The truth is that whatever significance this event had as a news story, in terms of European political discourse it had no particular significance whatsoever. The word "particular" is important in the last sentence: the meeting had no more or less significance than any other of hundreds of meetings between European political figures that take place every year. But the overarching process to which all these meetings contribute in their diverse and meandering way is, in the long run, vastly significant. It illustrates the transformation of international politics in Europe that journalists were forced to find a controversial angle on the meeting of four heads of government to give it any interest at all.

We have come a long way from the field of the Cloth of Gold and the Congress of Vienna, and really that is the point. International political discourse in Europe is now a continuous process of meeting, discussion and debate. It is ubiquitous and every day; transcending traditional barriers of party and frontier as it proceeds in a disjointed and circuitous route towards something the nature of which remains uncertain but which can be very clearly defined by what it is not.

What it is not is the Europe of the nation states that went to war more than twice in the twentieth century and many more times in the centuries that preceded it. The nation states have survived - just - but they have gone way beyond what was already an unprecedented degree of co-operation towards co-habitation in a new political entity that has taken and will take many years to find a stable form.

The methodology of bringing this stable form to fruition embraces only one activity, which is talk. There is no scope here for decisiveness, can be no attempt to close down the debate or accelerate to a conclusion. Even if predictions can be made on the basis of events so far the outcome remains, literally, unknown. Its inexhaustibility is one of the main strengths of the process: by discouraging haste and discounting petulance it prevents individual players from diverting it to their own ends.

From the point of view of problem-solving - particularly conflict resolution - it might seem strange to endorse this apparently endless and indecisive process. But effective problem-solving is all about solutions with staying power and the European project is too enormous to be subjected to a quick fix.

Politically speaking this is an evolutionary process, and evolution presupposes plenty of unsuccessful mutations and developmental dead ends which take lots of time. An evolved being is not a compromise but a combination of many different and small successes. It follows that anything that survives is not weakened by the testing political environment of its genesis but is commensurately strong. One thing that gives reassurance that the process is working effectively is the pattern of constantly shifting alliances that is witnessed in the corridors and council chambers where the process is carried on. Although weak alignments crop up all the time there are no fixed alliances of pairs or groups of national governments. That particular recessive gene seems to have died out, so now alliances are only about issues and on a given day Britain, for example, may be hand-in-hand with France pushing a particular line on some subject that is opposed by Germany, while simultaneously allied with Germany on a subject that France disapproves.

It is fashionable in certain circles to deride Europe for this supposedly weak, consensual approach, and it is true that the process will not transform the region into a new world superpower overnight. More significantly, that banal 20th century concept would be ill-applied to whatever might emerge from the maturity of the European project. The limits of even overwhelming military and economic power have already been amply demonstrated in the dawning of the 21st century. The war bit is easy, but the battle of ideas is less easily won.

Believe it or not, it is with ideas that Europe is toiling. Ideas of associative endeavour, co-operation, collective responsibility, openness and genuine accountability. The waters remain decidedly murky and they will not clear any time soon. The process will continue to stir up the mud as Jaques, Tony, Gerhard and the rest of them continue their shuffling. But the process is a process, guided by intent, and the maddening inconsistency of its innumerable elements reminds Europeans of their part in a genuinely free and open endeavour.




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