On May 1, ten new nations joined the European Union, pushing its membership up to 25. Two more countries, Romania and Bulgaria, are in the process of negotiating entry, and another, Turkey, is knocking at the door. But, beyond the celebrations of the most recent enlargement round and preparations for the next one, it is time to ask what effect the enlarged EU will have on world affairs? How should - and will - the other member states of the United Nations view this event?
In order to understand the importance of what is happening, we must begin by ridding ourselves of the curse of our times. We are permanent - if consenting - victims of current events, of what is happening at any particular moment. Television shortens our horizons. No one thinks anymore about the long term.
But it is only in the long term that the European project is really important. It is important for two reasons, one concerning its implications for peace and human rights, the other concerning its impact on commerce and development.
The history of humanity is only around six thousand years old, and yet it includes some ten thousand wars. The European continent played a large part in this historical carnage - much greater, proportionally, than the rest of the world, given the time during which the European continent was in fact populated.
But now we have in the EU an organic system that makes war virtually impossible on the European Continent and reconciles the peoples who live here. In 1945, the Germans and the French liked each other about as much as Serbs and Bosnians do today. But the Germans and French are now married within the Union.
Europe is now poised for similar reconciliations elsewhere. For seven centuries, Hungary and Romania have been engaged in wars over territory and peoples. Hungary is now an EU member, and Romania is poised to join (though its membership is a bit delayed because of a lagging domestic reform process). Poland has known a thousand years of wars with its neighbors. Today, it is secure.
The European venture is immense. The assurance given to the world that wars will no longer originate in Europe represents a formidable reversal of history. All these European states are not merely at peace with one another; they also all respect human rights.
The other element of historic significance is the unified internal market of the extended European Union. It is a market with merciless rules in terms of competition, but also with principles and mechanisms of internal solidarity that commit the economically more developed members to help the less advanced countries to overcome their structural handicaps, and a common commercial and customs policy vis-à-vis the external world.
The results of this "competitive solidarity" are huge. Ireland, Portugal, and Greece have experienced spectacular development; the poverty that bound them for generations has practically vanished. The ten new countries will now take the baton and begin to banish poverty.
The EU is an exceptionally important precedent in another way. No great economic power in history has been born without force - until now. European law will be enough to impede any global giant - be it Japanese, European, or American - that might otherwise establish domination of the world in any sector of the world economy. Microsoft will no longer dominate control over the diffusion of knowledge in the world.
But there is a price to be paid for this progress. The historical and strategic sensibilities of all the countries assembled in the new Europe are so different that they cannot have a common foreign policy. People kill each other in Somalia, Rwanda, ex-Yugoslavia, and the Middle East without Europe being able to do anything about it. Experience has spoken: we have to abandon today the dream of federal Europe as a counterpoint to the United States; the majority of Europeans don't want this.
Far from being a single nation in the process of formation, Europe is only a space of proximity governed by democratic norms and a shared rule of law. But that is already a lot. While the mission of this space may not be enough to shift the balance in world affairs, it can help spread peace, respect for human rights, and efficient and respected rules governing global commerce.
If one remains aware of this, and if one does not attempt to impose on the Union the disagreements that America's current leaders and policies incite, an obvious conclusion comes to mind. The area of peace that is Europe is bound to grow further in the future, first to Ex-Yugoslavia, then to Turkey, then one day to the Middle East and the Islamic world. In assuring peace and development, Europe will have served humanity well.