Europe wants to be the other superpower. There are just four problems. by Bruce Sterling
In April, while the US was loudly conquering Iraq, the world’s weirdest empire quietly swallowed 10 countries. In the ancient shadow of the Acropolis, the European Union expanded from 15 nations to 25, opening its gates to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the island of Malta, and the schizoid mess that is Cyprus. Someday, “Europe” might extend all the way to Japan.
What’s the EU’s secret for transcending nationalism? Infrastructure. April’s 4,900-page Treaty of Accession is all about railroads, smokestacks, trademarks, livestock, fertilizer, cosmetics, glassware, footwear – everything it will take to level the playing field across a consumer population of 450 million people. Life is bound to improve for the new members, from Polish newspaper editors who once feared for their lives to black-lunged Czechoslovakian miners. Celebration is in order, and mankind should rejoice.
No silver lining comes without a cloud, though, and Europe faces severe challenges. First and foremost, it lacks a real government. Managing Europe by remote control through 15 national authorities was unwieldy, but 25 looks downright impossible. The nascent empire needs to establish some federal-style centralization, if only to have a place to pick up the phone. The aptly named Convention on the Future of Europe, a 105-member committee chaired by the former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is poised to create – really – a president and a politburo of some kind, a vice president, a foreign secretary, and a constitution. This will be no picnic, especially with the French at the wheel. They’ll have to hammer out a bill of rights amid power struggles over vetoes and representation. If it were anybody but Europeans, they’d die before it was over from the sheer boredom of all that negotiating.
Second, European countries that haven’t yet been absorbed are in steep decline. The outlines of the Schengen open-border confederation constitute a 21st-century Berlin Wall, separating the New Europe from what now can be justly called Deepest, Darkest Europe. The outcasts are deprived of investment capital. Their crumbling highways and ill-kept infrastructure make it hard to compete with their neighbors’ glossy standards, so they attract offshore maquiladora-style plants and sex tourism. Their best and brightest become brain-drained guest workers. As time passes, keeping up with the Joneses requires an ever greater leap, and “transition” looks less like an interregnum and more like a ghetto. This is the stick to Europe’s carrot, and it’s a nasty one. As for the union itself, thriving beside iron-fisted, hidebound Communist regimes was hard enough, but prospering next to massive organized crime – that won’t be pretty.
Third, Europe is lightly armed. Although Europeans in general scorn the American cowboy tradition of blowing the living daylights out of bandits, the EU’s fringe hosts its share of vigilante bloodletting – thanks to church-burning Balkan bandits, tin-pot dictators in Belarus, Albanian heroin gangsters, and cold-eyed al Qaeda theology students. It’s one thing to talk softly and carry a big stick, but it’s another to talk endlessly and have no stick at all. Europe’s air forces are too trifling to fly soldiers and arsenals to war zones. You can count its aircraft carriers on two hands with fingers left over. Under those circumstances, having a military courts humiliation without adding security. The people of Poland, repeatedly sacked and trampled, laugh in their sleeves at French “security guarantees,” so of course they’re going to suck up to the empire that has functional hardware. Whether weary Americans arrange Dayton Peace Accords or smart-bomb Serbian dictators, they only highlight Europe’s weakness in what should be its own sphere of influence.
Finally, today’s children are the citizens of the future, and Europe has very few of them. While Asia’s population spills out of its own borders to colonize the West, Europe’s is aging and shrinking. The huddled masses yearning to breathe free, who once turned the American continents into emergent states, are more comfortable now. Meanwhile, people from less comfortable regions are arriving in droves. Modern France attracts Algerians, Moroccans, Senegalese, and Tunisians. Turks and Kurds go to Germany. Italy is a magnet for Albanians. Decades hence, the people of “Europe” will have a rather expansive genetic profile.
But as long as the infrastructure is there, does it really matter who inhabits it? Becoming a mix-and-match composite of the planet’s ethnicities never slowed down the US. Whatever “Europe” is – union, superstate, confederacy, club, bloc, or community – it’s a brand-new form of political organization whose best days are likely ahead of it. And it doesn’t have to stay put on any particular continent, either. A 21st-century Europe without any Europeans in it – that’s such an attractive prospect that even Republicans might join up.