There have been times in the history of EU summitry when the gatherings seemed no more than an excuse for a gourmet dinner. Not this time. The two-day summit that opened in Brussels yesterday has what must be one of the most packed agendas on record. Even Gordon Brown, notorious for his just-in-time arrivals and early departures, swept in early and gave interviews in front of a European flag that almost obscured the Union Jack.
Such are the extraordinary transformations wrought by this financial crisis. President Bush is accused of turning socialist; France's most free-market President for a generation has pronounced the end of laissez-faire; Britain's Conservatives are demanding curbs on City bonuses, and Mr Brown is not only travelling willingly to Brussels, but being feted when he gets there.
True to form, perhaps, he used his interviews to talk about the global, rather just the European, context. The huge rescue package for British banking that he and his Chancellor, Alistair Darling, made public before the London Stock Exchange opened on Monday might have provided a template for other EU countries to follow, but it was quickly also taken up by the United States. Now Mr Brown is calling for reform of the global financial system and its institutions, starting with the "rebuilding" of the IMF. This is ambitious but it is not unrealistic given the scale of the crisis, Mr Brown's long years as Chancellor, and his interests in globalisation and development.
But to concentrate right now on what might eventually be achieved in the global dimension – laudable and necessary as those plans might be – risks distracting attention from something that has already been achieved. As so often, it takes a certain distance to see clearly something that seems only a confused blur up close. What US and non-EU observers have noted, however, is that after some irritated huffing and puffing, some predictable striking of national poses and playing to party political galleries, the Europeans have been getting their act together.
The Brown-Darling rescue package, with its partial nationalisation of major British banks, might have supplied a model – and one that, with its roots in partial public ownership and limits on market excesses, chimes well with long-standing Continental inclinations – but its principles were swiftly accepted across the European Union. Further changes, such as higher guarantees on EU bank deposits and better capitalisation of European banks, look likely to follow. Europe could be closer to a common economic policy than it has ever been and, as the British involvement shows, one that is not restricted to the euro-zone.
From warnings that the euro could be strained to breaking point, expressions of relief can be heard around the world about its stabilising effect. Near-bankrupt Iceland has revived the question of EU membership. Negative comparisons are routinely drawn between the capacity of the US and the EU to act, despite the fact that the US, unlike the EU, is a sovereign state. In this crisis, the European Union for all its differences has so far acted quickly and cohesively – to the envy of some of our transatlantic friends.Reuse content