DUBLIN - The Irish have never needed a reason to party, but the expanded European Union (EU) on May 1 (including eight formerly communist countries) has given them a respectable one. And their pride is enhanced because their prime minister, Bertie Ahern, is the president of the European Council of the EU. Ahern presided at ceremonies last Saturday during which he welcomed the 10 new member states.
Europeans - or at least the member nations of the EU (more but not necessarily all to come) - have been warring with each other over land, politics, grievances and especially religion since before the Christ most no longer worship. Since the foundation of Rome in 753 B.C. there have been wars and rumors of war on the continent and with Britain.
What makes Europeans believe that this time they've got it right? The source for their optimism is recent events. Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe, the European states believe their moment has arrived. Optimism has always driven people and states, even when the failure to deal adequately with humanity's lower nature brought pessimism. After much haggling, the EU has yet to produce a constitution. And Britain remains on the sidelines, so far refusing to join the club.
Fifty-eight years ago, Winston Churchill spoke of an Iron Curtain having descended "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic." That curtain has now been raised. Would it be churlish to note that Europeans were largely unable, or unwilling, to free themselves from the twin menaces of fascism and communism in the last century and had to be liberated from these evils and from themselves by the United States? While some wonder if Iraq can stand on its own, we can also ask, can Europe?
The Times of London, while editorially celebrating a "Glad Bright Morning," is right to describe the EU as "an experiment in political organization." Yes, it is convenient to travel from country to country without changing currency (though not as fun). Yes, Europeans will be able to travel more freely within the EU and get jobs in other countries from which they were barred in the past. Yes, EU members enjoy quicker passage through airport immigration than the mere Americans who have made their present lot possible. But will union mean unity? That is yet to be demonstrated.
Europe's biggest problem will be its current one: assimilation. What does being a "European" mean? As imperfect as identity politics may have been in the past, the Germans, French, Dutch and even the Swiss had a sense of self, if not always a sense of purpose. What are they now? If they are now the 25 "musketeers," can each be expected to work for the benefit of all rather than serve self-interest?
Individual European nations do not have a history of subordination of self-interest to the general welfare. Past alliances were mostly formed to advance the self-interests of a state or states entering into those alliances. When those interests were served (or rejected in war) the nation-states mostly continued as before.
Europeans are now being asked to subscribe to a creed grander than the United Nations, which has failed to usher in world peace. Twenty-five nations representing 450 million people have a lot at stake in this grandest of experiments. Past grievances have often overwhelmed future hope. The Irish Times' Hugo Hamilton referred to that checkered history in a May 1 article: "Each of the new states may have a communal future to a certain degree, but they each have their own ways of remembering the past."
Hamilton seems to be engaging in an act of faith (if not a leap) when he writes, "We see the bomb attacks in Spain as something that happened to us all. That collective sensitivity shapes our decisions about the future." Is that why Spain withdrew troops from the coalition in Iraq? Is that why France, Germany and England seem unwilling (or unable, as in England where liberal laws make it difficult) to deal with its non-assimilating Muslim population and the minority (we're told) among them who call for an Islamic union, by force if necessary?
Let's raise a glass with Dubliners to the larger European Union. But given the history of Europe, I wouldn't bet more than a pint of Guinness on a successful outcome.