The EU today is a bit like a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Tom has run over the cliff edge chasing Jerry and his legs are still pumping furiously in thin air as he's yet to plummet to earth to meet some grizzly end. The EU has gone over the cliff edge, its legs are still pumping, but there's no realization among its leaders or the wider public that a vertiginous plummet is imminent.
The EU is in an existential crisis over what it is for, where it is heading, how it is to be governed and how to win popular Europe-wide consent. Despite the appearance of normality, the crisis is beginning to paralyze the entire operation.
The lack of agreement over everything -- from the next seven-year EU budget, beginning in July, to the stance that should be taken in the world trade talks set to begin in Hong Kong before Christmas -- has gone well beyond the usual intra-EU spats.
The "no" votes in France and Holland on the EU constitutional treaty have left the 25-member EU without a workable system of governance. They have created, particularly in France, a political dynamic that opposes head-on the so-called Anglo-Saxon-liberal worldview that allegedly wants to dismantle Europe's social achievement and open up every European industry to the full blast of unfair global competition.
This, say the French and their camp-followers, is the not-so-hidden agenda of a lightweight EU Commission and its British ally they are Trojan horses with the hidden mission of wrecking Europe.
The mood is ugly, the divisions run deep.
Meanwhile the EU economy continues to languish. Two weekends ago every member state was to have submitted its plan to contribute to making Europe the world's most competitive, knowledge-based, dynamic economy by 2010 -- the so-called Lisbon agenda. This was to have been proclaimed in a blaze of publicity and political commitment that would signal a common European determination to do better. The plans were submitted. But not only did nobody notice, nobody cared.
In Britain, it is part of the national psychosis that whatever the British want, devilish continentals are hell bent on building a European superstate that will suffocate UK economically and rob the British of their sovereignty.
The reality -- that the EU is a fragile and beleaguered creation that could easily fall to earth like Tom, and is only as strong as the collective political commitment of its member states and citizens which is now sharply weakening -- is almost never aired.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, recognizing the depths of the disagreement and the urgent need to restore some momentum, wants to use this week to find some ideological common ground over what Europe is for.
At his speech to the European parliament last June he argued that Britain's advocacy of European economic reform did not mean it wanted to dismantle social Europe. Britain was as concerned about high-quality universal education, health and support for society's weak as mainland Europeans. But to support social solidarity the European economy had to work, and that implied change. There should be more focus on the knowledge economy, creating incentives to work and promoting trade and less focus on agriculture and preserving fossilized institutions.
The argument has widespread support. The European press was extraordinary in its praise of the European parliament speech. But four months later the gulf between Britain and many EU governments, including some natural allies in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, is now wider and the distrust greater. And the reason is that the British government's actions betray its words it doesn't put its money where its mouth is.
The paper on "Global Europe: Full Employment Europe" by Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, written as a position paper before last Thursday summit, was unintentionally an exemplar of the problem. Brown's economic analysis and recommendations can hardly be faulted, putting substantive flesh on the Blair position.
But what would have turned the document into European political gold is if he had made a concrete offer to kickstart the process. Suppose he had suggested that in return for agreement to reform the Common Agricultural Policy and redirect higher EU spending on research, universities and education he was prepared to consider lowering the famous British budget rebate. The impact would have been electric. At a stroke Britain would have emerged as the EU's galvanizing leader -- a catalyst to reshape the continent.
But that is not the leadership Britain offers. I was in Turkey two weekends ago at a conference to discuss the fateful decision for Turkey and the EU to begin talks about membership. This is a country where European secular republicanism and Islamic fundamentalism are engaged in an intense cultural war over issues such as whether the state should continue to forbid women to wear headscarves in public institutions.
If EU membership could help create an economic boom in Turkey, the strategic reasons for joining become overwhelming. But if the Islamists win the internal cultural and political war, the EU will have an alien force at its heart. The stakes are fantastically high and reservations in France, Germany and Austria are understandable.
Yet Britain used its presidency to press for accession talks to begin without a single concession to European doubters nor a single new initiative that might make Turkish economic success more likely.
For, at bottom, the British are not trying to create anything other than a lowest common denominator free-trade area which includes Turkey. That is why the UK is regarded with such suspicion by the rest of Europe.
This is a mistake. The Blair/Brown analysis of how the EU needs to develop is right, but it will never take off as a political project unless it is sold hard as building Europe around common European values.
For its part, Britain has to demonstrate that it considers the project so important that it, too, is prepared to make sacrifices.
Both cite in support the report on European competitiveness for EU heads of government submitted last year by the former Dutch prime minister Wim Kok which was endorsed by every member state. I'm flattered -- I wrote it.
But while the Kok group made very similar arguments to Brown and Blair, we were aiming for a new European settlement around which economic and political integration could recohere. Otherwise the French criticism, although economically wrong-headed, is politically validated.
In the end it is simple. You either think that, despite its failings, the EU is a force for good -- or you don't. And if you are on its side, you have fight for it. Beset by critics and internal division, without a sense of purpose and momentum the EU will rot and implode. Nobody should underestimate the risk -- and how it would leave us all the poorer.
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