The undervalued European Union

While reading American newspapers, one is astonished by the lack of understanding of the European Union: It looks as if it were a bunch of incorrigible, egotistical and laggard states, unorganized, sclerotic and backward looking. George Will in the Washington Post recently called it “a union of irresponsibility.” To him, the Euro expresses cultural despair and promotes a fiction that “Europe” has somehow become, against the wishes of most Europeans(!), a political — rather than a merely geographic — expression.

Maybe some basic facts will help Americans understand the revolution that is being forged in Europe. 

Europe is a continent where, in the past, wars have been the norm: Germans against French, French against English, Spaniards against French, Italians against Austrians, Austrians against Turks, Swedes against Poles, Poles against Russians, you name it. During the centuries, almost everybody has made war against everybody. 

Today, the European Union consists of 27 independent states: In several waves of accession, countries with very different histories and traditions, democratic states, former dictatorships, as well as countries formerly under communist rule, were admitted as democracies into the Union. The European Union was created not by force, but by the free will of its 500 million people. It is and has been a zone of peace for more than 50 years, unparalleled in European history. Political decisions are taken through an elaborate system of co-responsibility within the European Council. The European Commission proposes legislation to be enacted by the European Parliament. Today, Europeans can travel freely from Lisbon to Helsinki, and from Bucharest to Dublin. Human rights are respected. Capital punishment is abolished.

Economically, the European Union is a success: It is the most prosperous region in the world. With some 7.5 percent of the world’s population, it is the single largest economic body in the world. Its GDP accounts for more than 30 percent of global GDP, exceeding the U.S. Some 50 percent of global FDI flows are generated in the EU. It is the world’s leading exporter and the main source of development aid (60 percent of global ODA). 

U.S. investments in Europe were three times larger than in all of Asia; the EU is the biggest investor in the U.S. EU-U.S. trade exchange amounts to more than $1 billion per day. The $3.75 trillion EU-U.S. transatlantic economy represents the largest, most-integrated and longest-lasting economic relationship in the world. Some 14 million jobs are closely linked to transatlantic economic cooperation and trade.

The Euro area comprising 16 EU countries is the world’s largest economy after the United States. Since its inception some 10 years ago, the Euro enabled its participants to achieve above-average economic growth. As one would expect, there are differences between the northern and the southern states, but the purpose of the Euro was exactly to give the latter the opportunity to take advantage of the success of their partners and to learn through best practices. Not all of them have made good use of the opportunity provided, but the independent European Central Bank took the necessary steps to provide countries in financial troubles with a security umbrella (some $150 billion) and will continue to do so. In exchange, all of us have taken measures to reduce the budget deficits and the public debt. Yes, some of us have lived beyond our means. However, it seems apparent that we have learned our lesson and have started to implement the necessary corrections.  

It is true the European Union is still a work in progress. Many European countries still want to join and participate in our common endeavor. Setbacks are not excluded, but we have overcome numerous crises in the 52 years of our existence. We will emerge from the present one even stronger and more united. The United States built itself more or less from scratch and, after 1776, it needed some 80 years to achieve its territorial completion. By contrast, we have to take into account 27 different constitutions, histories and traditions. Why are you so impatient with us? 

In the multi-polar world we live in, among the prevailing regions of the globe only the U.S. and the EU share the same values of market economy, democracy and human rights. We might not always concur, but it is in both our interest to understand and respect each other and work closely together in order to convince the rest of the world of the validity of our political and social systems. 

Christian Prosl is the ambassador of Austria to the Unites States of America.