Europe's integration project is historically unprecedented. For the past millennium, Europe has lived in an uneasy equilibrium, giving birth to every great empire that dominated and pacified the world in the last 500 years.
Its eight or nine principal nations made war on each other whenever one threatened to seek and secure mastery over the others. Europe gave us the last two world wars, and to the balance sheet of monstrosities must be added its grotesque refinements in the art of murder: the Holocaust and the Gulag.
Sixty years after the end of the last war -- a pittance in the light of history -- 25 European nations, including nearly all of the countries on the continent, are united in a common project that guarantees a definitive peace. The institutionalization of Europe makes war impossible and it motivates reconciliation: between France and Germany, between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, and soon between Hungarians and Romanians. At the same time, deep economic integration and a common commercial policy make the EU a zone of prosperity that is relatively well protected against contemporary financial crises.
Those who dreamt of a single federal nation, capable of asserting a strong foreign policy backed by potent armed forces, are perhaps disappointed by the shape of today's EU. But it is a mistake to focus too much on the union's shortcomings and ignore the extraordinary reality that exists before us. Although Europe is more a space governed by a shared rule of law than an expression of a unitary political will, it is currently becoming the greatest economic power in the world.
This is a historical event of enormous significance. But that hasn't silenced the EU's critics, who complain that it was the child of unelected technocrats and of governments negotiating treaties behind the backs of their people.
This is true, but only up to a point. In the past, Europe has suffered from a lack of democratic legitimacy. But from one treaty to another (there have been eight altogether), from one stage of integration to the next, national governments, sensitive to the perceived "democratic deficit," gradually enlarged the powers of the European Parliament. What was originally a consultative body has slowly evolved into a parliament like any other.
Indeed, the only attribute of a national parliament that the European Parliament still lacks is the power of legislative initiative. Otherwise, it is a normal legislature, evolving into the bearer of popular confidence -- or the lack thereof -- in the government (in this case the European Commission).
Although the authority to vote a government in or out stems from the treaty of Amsterdam, which was ratified in 1997, the European Parliament has not used it -- until now. In the last week of October, Italy's candidate for the position of European commissioner for justice, freedom and security, Rocco Buttiglione, declared before the Parliament that homosexuality is a sin and that women's purpose should be to stay at home and be protected by men, so that they can raise children.
Nobody questions Buttiglione's right to think this way. But his doing so disqualifies him from a position of leadership in an area in which the European Parliament has for more than 20 years consistently affirmed a far more progressive line, be it on the rights of minorities -- including sexual minorities -- or on equality between men and women.