9.21.18: a rebel alliance of quality content
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building bridges
the united states... and europe
by sigbjørn lund olsen

After the eight-year War of Independence, Britain recognized the independence of thirteen colonies in 1783. The main challenge faced by the Americans at the time was as easy to state as it was difficult to overcome: they were thirteen independent entities. Avoiding the loss of their newly-won independence when surrounded by Spanish and British colonies (the latter being extremely hostile) and being thrown about by the turbulent whims of European power play required a great deal of resilience from all thirteen. And while their independence made the necessity for a tighter union obvious and prudent, that same independence was something held with extreme jealousy by the individual states.

In the end, prudence took the upper hand, and the Articles of Confederation - effectively no more than a military alliance - was replaced by the Constitution in 1789, and the United States of America was born.

* * *

North American history was, however, not fluttering around in my head when I, 213 years later, was being hurtled into the European mainland by the Eurostar high-speed train. Travelling far below sea level when going to or from London, the Eurostar has become one of those weird technological sights. Not that there is much to see when you’re in a pitch-dark tunnel.

During the day, I passed through Southern England, Northern France and lastly Belgium, which historically is one of the most conflict-ridden areas in the world. Looking at the conflict in Israel/Palestine these days it seems absurd that this serene little country, stuck between Britain, France and Germany, should have been equally disputed, merely half a century ago. It seems a bit unreal for us, the generation that didn’t see the War, but history demands an admission: if it’s something we Europeans have been really really good at, then it has to be killing each other.

Granted, to a certain extent we still are quite good at it (see the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and Spain) but after the Second World War it seems as if we barbarians have come to better thoughts, much thanks to American influence during the peace settlement. That influence made the peace treaty fair enough to prevent a backlash like the one that occurred after the First World War.

Most conflicts between Germany and France had been due to the coal and steel industries, and to eliminate that as a potential cause of conflict, the Benelux countries, Italy, Germany, and France agreed on a common steel and coal policy. With the Treaties of Rome from 1957 the co-operation expanded into the domain of nuclear energy as well, but more importantly, the European Economic Community was formed. The initial economic co-operation has over the decades branched into virtually every area of European society, turning into the European Community and then later on, in the early nineties, into the European Union. But is it really a union?

* * *

Judging from the €uro souvenir stores spread around in Brussels, and the claim to be the ‘capital of Europe’ in the tourist pamphlets I picked up, then one can at least deduce that the Belgians seem to think so. However, I’ve never detected any trace of loyalty towards the EU in any other European capital, and I’ve been in a few. Seeing the size of the ‘European Quarter’, the centre of EU administration, one can at least deduce that there is quite a considerable organization based here. But as men are repeatedly told by their better halves, size doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it.

* * *

The most imposing building in the European Quarter is without doubt the double building that houses the European Parliament, with its tall, glassy look. The interior design manages to seem open and spacious even though it is crammed with offices for the 626 MEPs (Members of European Parliament) and the civil servants that accompany them. Coming from the eurosceptic Norway, the first thought that came to mind went somewhere along the lines of “Well, this is nice, but why spend such enormous amounts of money on this obviously ludicrously expensive building when all this stuff is just red tape?” This thought was confirmed when I passed a collection box for UNICEF on the way to a journalism seminar and I saw a €500 note amongst all the coins. A shrine to ¥€$, the great god of capitalism. The EP: A rich place for rich people representing the interests of the rich – a tumour on democracy.

It didn’t add up to reality though: The EU institutions given strangely little coverage by the press, and if they are then it’s usually some scandal that can reinforce the popular view (especially in northern Europe) that the EU is a powerless and corrupt organization, a waste of money and resources. Yet, as I came to conclude, it is blatantly obvious that this is not true. You don’t even have to take the word of the parliament for it – simply seeing the scale of lobbyist activities in Brussels is proof enough. The lobbyists and politicians have flocked to Brussels because big businesses and governments know exactly where the power lies, and the EP probably has more effect on EU citizens than the parliaments of their respective nations. But the press doesn’t seem to want to tune into this.

So picking up the mental equivalent of a shovel, I buried my view on the EU, much influenced by media, when I passed the UNICEF collection box again on my way to lunch. As it happens, it wasn’t a €500 note I’d seen. It was 500 Italian lire.

* * *

The Commission is often likened to ‘the government of Europe’. However, this description is overly simplified. The Commission is supposed to be politically ‘neutral’ (though that’s an oxymoron in its own right), made up from politicians put forward by the national governments and then approved by the European Parliament (that also has the power to dismiss it through a vote of no-confidence). Still, the Commission is not democratically elected, and can only function on an eurocratic level, because of the diverse political spectrum the Commissioners represent.

* * *

As part of the journalism seminar I attended there was a discussion between two MEPs from Britain, a Tory and a Labour representative. The Tories are eurosceptic, and basically against any federalization of Europe, because of the Council of Ministers, the second legislative of the EU, which has codecision-power with the EP. It is in essence is a council of all the ministers of all the nations, an instrument of the nation-state governments to keep the EU ‘under control’. Giving up power to the EU is bad, they argue, because it is not a directly elected, transparent democratic organization, and such institutions should not be allowed to wield power. Like true politicians, the solution that the Tories have for the problem of nation-state governments having too much power in the EU is to give more power to the nation-states.

* * *

It just isn’t going to happen.

Losing its colonies, Europe was rapidly becoming a group of medium-to-small sized nations with nothing but former glory. To compete against the giants, Russia and the US, the only prudent thing to do would be to unite. But with WWII fresh in mind, that wasn’t even remotely possible. Any notion of trust had been literally blown away by the most destructive war in the history of mankind. So to reach this level of prudence, one first had to create peace and stability. Therefore, the European institutions.

There is a phrase in the Preamble of the Treaties of Rome. “Determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, Resolved to ensure the economic and social progress of their countries by common action to eliminate the barriers which divide Europe”. Quite ambiguous, yet quite clear in its intention. Suggestive, even. History has changed the world somewhat since the late fifties, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rapid growth of Asia, but the process continues.

Anyone talking about a federal Europe ten years ago would be either regarded as somewhat less than sane, a sci-fi quack, or both. Today, that person would merely be a politician with a quite popular view, which certainly is in tune with the political trend at the moment. EU is finally getting a constitution now, after 50 years without one. It won’t be federal, but rather it will open up for a more democratic EU where the EP has more influence. The alternative would look like a rather odd constitution, considering the democratic ideals the EU claims to have close at heart. In time, the EU will be a federal state. Give us another fifty years.

Or less, considering that the current unilateralism of the USA is accelerating the federalization of Europe. It angers European leaders they are not regarded as a world power (even though they are in fact not). They are not interested in extending the current ‘War’ on terrorism to any country that the US doesn’t like the look of. And they are aggravated at the US government flushing just about any international agreement down some toilet of convenience, be that Kyoto, the test ban on nuclear weapons, or the treaties against development of biological or chemical weapons. European leaders want Europe to be a competitive force in a competitive world. So those leaders, fed up of having to deal with the turbulent whims of American power play, are now working towards becoming a real world power, taking after their colonies some two hundred years later.


Sigbjørn still maintains that he is going to be somebody ... carefully neglecting the fact that all the ninety-year olds still singing into their combs in front of their mirrors, they too knew that they were going to be somebody. It is slowly dawning on him that his shot at being a star kid actor may very well have passed, so as a backup plan, he's currently attending university in Trondheim, Norway, studying film.

more about sigbjørn lund olsen


joe procopio
4.26.02 @ 8:23a

I SO wanted to slam you into a wall for this one but I realized I couldn't. Your insight is bulletproof and your conclusions couldn't be more crystal and deductive. Bravo on an excellent column, but you owe me a good Europe v. USA argument sometime.

jael mchenry
4.26.02 @ 9:40a

When I was in college I thought we were caught in a powerful, irrestible trend toward multinationalism. And now I see the opposite. Age-old conflicts, intrinsic differences. Things will never change.

500 lire? Isn't that like a cent?

adam kraemer
4.26.02 @ 1:49p

Truth is, I always thought that a European consolidation made sense, if just from a natural resources standpoint. Part of the reason that the US is so strong is that if push came to shove, we're pretty much self-sufficient. The USSR was the same way, except that their transporation infrastructure sucked. It's not easy to get soveriegn states to agree to merge under one government. Even right after the Ottoman Empire was split up, and the rhetoric of Pan-Arabism was the rage, you would have been hard-pressed to get, say, the King of Jordan and the King of Saudi Arabia to agree to abdicating any of their powers.

tracey kelley
4.26.02 @ 2:35p

...we're pretty much self-sufficient.

Except for that silly little fossil fuel thing.

russ carr
4.26.02 @ 4:04p

Lobbyists, no-confidence votes, split alliances. Next thing you know, Senator Palpatine will be leading the EU.

Europe is the white-collar equivalent of the Middle East, possessing significant power to influence the course of world events, but too torn by the pride of individual tribes to unify successfully. Adam's right on the money. And there is no T.E. Lawrence or Ataturk in Europe.

Finally, I think Belgians are giddy over being the "capital" of the EU because it finally gives their country an excuse for being. I mean, what else do they have? Waffles?

sigbjørn olsen
4.27.02 @ 8:50p

Jael, your country is proof to the fact that not everything stays the same. 200 years ago, the USA was as divided and diverse as Europe is today. Things change: 500 lire used to be practically nothing. Now we have the Euro and it is nothing ;-)

Russ/Adam, I don't see how Palpatine comes into the picture, to be honest. Any big union is bound to be diverse, but as long as that diversity is democratic that isn't a problem. Which means that Europe couldn't possibly be further removed from the Middle East in internal structure. European countries are in essence all democratic - you aren't talking about a group of autocracies trying to get along - you simply cannot maintain a strong personal avarice for power in a democracy. If you do that, it will eventually be taken from you. That vital fact makes all the difference - in a democracy you fall on middle ground, and middle ground at the moment (and for the foreseeable future) is growing unity.

And as for the Belgians, I am inclined to agree, but I'd like to note that they have been a primus motor in the development process of the European cooperation. What do they have? Waffles and a history of being the innocent victims in every war between the major European powers. They had the most to lose, and arguably have gained the most.

russ carr
4.27.02 @ 9:03p

I'm all in favor of a United Europe, don't get me wrong. But while the nations of the EU may be democratic in government, they often are nationalistic in tendency -- note the UK's foot-dragging on just about anything which would deprive them of the slightest shred of their national identity. France's weird electioneering from a couple of weeks signifies something, but I don't know what. I know Chirac will win again, and it seems like all of France disavows voting for Le Pen, yet still he is the challenger. And while Germany, which has the worst reputation to bury, has been among the best when it comes to embracing unification, they still have significant anti-immigrant problems. And then there's southeastern Europe, which, though outside the EU for now, is still part of Europe, like it or not.

I wasn't aware of Norway's ambivalence. But then again, with the completely non-global news that we're inflicted with here, I'm not surprised.

sigbjørn olsen
4.27.02 @ 9:08p

Northern Europe (including Britain) likes to ignore the EU, but then again, the people who go to Brussels are generally not the ones who are eurosceptic. It's an amusing display of 'the people who show up decide'. As for perhaps the most prominent of these issues, the Euro, the UK is going to join that the second the pound is weak. It's just a matter of shrewd timing, not political ill will.

Norway is an unlikely topic in any media except the Norwegian one ;-)

adam kraemer
4.29.02 @ 1:20p

Belgians have beer, Russ. Belgians have absolutely amazing beer.


sigbjørn olsen
4.29.02 @ 3:39p

And chocolate!

sarah ficke
4.30.02 @ 11:15a

I dunno, Sigbjorn, I think the Swiss beat the Belgians when it comes to chocolate.

sigbjørn olsen
4.30.02 @ 2:09p

Sarah, if I didn't believe in the freedom of expression I'd put a gun to Joe's head, asking him to delete such obvious blasphemous comments :-p

jael mchenry
4.30.02 @ 2:36p

Sigbjorn: maybe this is an uninformed American attitude, but I see Europe as far more diverse and historically divided than the United States. After all, the US population consists almost entirely of imports, and was settled exclusively in the past 500 years. How long have there been people in Greece? Rome? Serbia? The political boundaries and alliances change, but deeper down there are people holding on to their father's father's father's land, and in that case I don't see them signing up to federalization.

sigbjørn olsen
5.1.02 @ 3:19p

Jael: You're quite informed (for an American, *grin* ;-) as to the deeper divisions of Europe, and indeed quite right. You won't see anyone signing up to federalization, not for a while. What you will see is federalization being brought in through the back-door if you like, as a natural consequence of the benefits European cooperation gives each individual member-state. European states aren't coming closer out of fear for external forces, but rather (in the start) out of fear of themselves, and in present day from the economical and social benefits one can harvest from this cooperation.

To be honest, I don't think anyone will use the word 'federal' untill some time after Europe has in reality been federalized. But I firmly think that federalization of Europe is inevitable, and nothing to run from either.

(Serbia isn't part of the EU, and considering the strife in the Balkans will not become part untill the region is stabilised, I think.)

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