Britain's failure, or all Europe's?: Amid final preparations for the Edinburgh summit, Dominique Mosi argues that it is not John Major's presidency but Europe itself that is found wanting

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The Independent Online
Some people, not least in Britain itself, are trying to hold the British presidency responsible for the failures of the European Community. But even the most dynamic and decisive leadership could hardly have altered the whole course of recent European history by itself.

Of course there have been mistakes. It is legitimate to ask whether fragmentation leading to war in the Balkans was inevitable, and whether shortsightedness and escapism in the West could have been avoided. But these failings are but symptoms of a wider malaise.

Europe today is in gloom and badly needs a restoration of hope. The predictable 'no' vote by a tiny majority of Swiss this week has simply added to the atmosphere of disarray and uncertainty, if not fear, that permeates Western Europe.

The gloom derives from two factors: failure to comprehend the present, and apprehension for the future. Incomprehension and frustration with the present stem, in turn, from the coincidence of three crises and the effects they have had on each other.

First, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the world is searching for a new order and some guiding principles, if not an organiser. The international system is behaving as if it were the orphan of the Soviet Union. The unity fostered by the Cold War has given way to rivalry between two opposing trends. In the economic sphere, the process of globalisation, interdependence and regional integration is accelerating. In the political sphere, nationalist and ethnic fragmentation seems to be gaining the upper hand. Paradoxically, the victory of liberty has ended Europe's post-war peace.

Beyond the crisis of the international system, there is a crisis of the state as an institution in the West. There is no longer a well-defined security threat - the prospect of Soviet tanks rolling across Europe - to justify the state's protection for its citizens. The present uncertainties are too diffuse to replace the 'evil empire'. Seen from this perspective, the state, too, is an orphan of the Soviet Union.

Deprived of its regal, Hobbesian security mission, the state seems incapable of finding solutions to the economic crisis, and appears powerless in the face of unemployment and monetary turmoil. The globalisation of the financial markets in the Eighties has deprived the state of its ability to control monetary flows, which today seem to obey an erratic invisible hand. The Keynesian function of the state as the regulatory force behind the economy has also been challenged by the power that national governments have bestowed on the European Commission.

Beyond the crises of the international system and the state comes a crisis of politics itself. All major Western European countries are experiencing an erosion of power. Because their respective parties or coalitions have been in power for 10 years or more, Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, John Major and Felipe Gonzalez are all simultaneously engaged in a process of competitive decline, which only exacerbates the tension between the various actors. Politicians are also being rejected because their language seems inadequate, their actions inept and because they give the impression - largely exaggerated - that they are putting their own interests before the common good.

With the end of the Cold War, civil society has returned as a major player on the international and domestic scene. At first, it conveyed joy that freedom and democratic principles had triumphed over totalitarianism. Now, however, it is increasingly expressing frustration, or outright rejection of a tired political system.

In this uncertain context, the EC should provide the logical answer. All the reasons why the EC was founded more than 40 years ago are still present, minus one: the Communist threat. In fact, Europe and its fundamental principles - tolerance, co-operation and an understanding that the needs and emotions of others must be integrated - are more necessary today than ever.

Unfortunately, it is just at this time that the European project and the ideals of the EC find themselves threatened by a combination of pessimism and indifference. Pessimism could easily lead to the worst prophecies coming true. Europeans must be convinced that in spite of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the fragmentation in central and eastern Europe, the turmoil in the money markets and the uncertainties in a Western Europe marked anew by nationalism and xenophobia, this is not 1914, 1929, or 1933.

We are not seeing a repeat of 1914, because in Sarajevo - despite the risk of regional Balkanisation - there are no outside powers poised to fan the fires in an attempt to save their own crumbling empires. Nor is the war there the equivalent for our generation of what the Spanish Civil War turned out to be: a dress rehearsal for the Second World War.

We are not seeing 1929 either, and the recession that is spreading to Japan is not likely to turn into a real depression because we have learnt from the Great Crash. International instruments of regulation exist and are being used, although not always in the most efficient way.

Finally, we are not seeing a repeat of 1933: the large pro-democracy demonstrations in German streets from Berlin to Munich would have been unthinkable in the climate of economic depression and anti-democratic bias of the doomed Weimar Republic.

Europe's ultimate sin may be indifference. Sarajevo's fires have been eating at European credibility, demonstrating, beyond the cold logic of prudence, an aloof indifference to the suffering of 'others': yesterday Europe's Jews, today Europe's Muslims.

The US intervention in Somalia may not signal an American willingness to act in the former Yugoslavia, but it makes one thing certain: if America does not take a political lead, nothing significant will be done to stop the bloodshed or contain the expansionist and destabilising ambition of Milosevic's Serbia. The European leaders who meet in Edinburgh today have their work cut out to 'restore hope' in Europe.

The author is deputy director of the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales and editor of the journal 'Politique etrangere'.

(Photograph omitted)