Leading article: The EU must now turn towards the east

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There was a certain lack of confidence about yesterday's celebrations in Rome of the 40th anniversary of the treaties that gave birth to the European Union.

Despite the EU's manifest achievements in consolidating peace and prosperity across half of Europe, the self-congratulations sounded less convincing than the self-doubts. For perhaps the first time in its history, the EU seems to be in need of a fresh vision, a rejuvenated sense of purpose, a boldness and creativity of spirit of the kind which inspired its formation in 1957.

Part of the explanation for the mood of self-critical introspection lies in the awareness that, on several important policy fronts, the EU has not come up to scratch in recent years. Mass unemployment and low growth are the norm in most member-states, and the best brains in the EU seem to be unable to crack the problem. The economic future seems to lie not just with East Asia, as predicted for so long, but also with a reinvigorated United States, whose job creation rate is much superior to the EU's.

In terms of forging an effective common foreign and security policy, too, the EU has fallen short of its own aspirations. Time and again it has been hobbled by its internal divisions - towards former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Albania and Turkey, to name just four recent problems. Even the increased use of majority voting in foreign policy matters, which is under discussion at the EU's conference on revising the Maastricht treaty, seems unlikely to do more than improve co-operation on relatively marginal issues.

Yet the most fundamental problem confronting the EU is not the failure of specific institutions or policies. It is the persistent lack of clarity about what should constitute the mission and identity of Europe in an age freed of the great ideological dispute between liberal market democracy and Communism. Within our grasp we have the prospect of a free, undivided, democratic Europe, and yet the EU seems uncertain both about its role in building that Europe, and about which countries should be part of it.

For sure, the EU is committed to eventually absorbing at least 10 former Communist countries - Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three Baltic states. Yet sometimes the EU seems scared of the implications of this proposed expansion. The countries that benefit most from the Common Agricultural Policy and which lap up the EU's structural funds (transfers of money from rich member-states to poor) seem to be in no hurry to let less well-off central and eastern Europeans feed at the same trough.

Others, at Brussels and inside certain national governments, grumble that the early admission of the former Communist countries will dilute the EU too much, preventing the emergence of a European political union. Hence, in their eyes, the paramount importance of launching the single currency on schedule in January 1999. Any delay in that project, and it is virtually certain that a coalition of states would emerge with the aim of postponing next year's membership negotiations for some or all of the central and eastern Europeans.

This would be a terrible tragedy, a victory for narrow-mindedness over imagination and courage. If the EU needs a goal to motivate it in coming years, surely no cause could be more deserving of sustained support than the unification of eastern and western Europe in democracy and peace, the planting and nurturing of prosperity in the east, the healing of ethnic minority conflicts and border disputes - in short, the whole-hearted embrace of an opportunity that has never before arisen in European history?

No less important is the need to clear up misunderstandings about where Europe's borders begin and end. Of crucial significance in this regard is the position of Turkey, which some EU states want to exclude for ever, but to which Britain and France in particular want to hold open the prospect of membership.

This issue has not only split the EU down the middle, but has also caused a needless dispute with the US, which sees Turkish association with Europe as an essential anchor of its pro-American regional security role.

Given its population of 62 million, its economic underdevelopment, its Kurdish civil war and its problematic record on human rights and military involvement in politics, it is hard to see how Turkey could join the EU as of today. Yet the argument of some EU states - that, as an Islamic country, Turkey can never be part of Europe - is fatuous, ignores the similarities between Turkey and Muslim-populated EU countries, and contradicts the liberal values that the EU should be upholding.

Now of all times is not the moment for the EU to retreat into its shell. It needs to take on challenges, not shy away from them. The turmoil in Albania cried out for energetic EU engagement, not a response that amounted to throwing up the drawbridge and letting Albanians drown in the suffering of an unwanted corner of Europe.

Last June the Czech President, Vaclav Havel, called on Europe "to rediscover, consciously embrace and in some way articulate its soul". The EU can do these things and, in the process, regain its confidence and redefine its identity. Its mission lies in central and eastern Europe, where with determination, imagination and generosity, it will achieve results every bit as laudable as those it secured in western Europe after 1957.