The Women of Europe’s Dream

LAUSANNE – I was born in 1945. My grandfather was a German Jew. Fortunately, none of my immediate family perished in the Holocaust. But its shadow hung over me throughout my formative years. When I began, in my teens, to meet with German contemporaries, there was an initial reticence and discomfort. But we talked and talked and talked. There was no attempt to hide the past, but there was a burning desire to make a different future. It followed that I became an ardent Europhile.

Two decades ago, the Berlin Wall was torn asunder by jubilant crowds. Today, ten former communist nations are fully integrated members of the European Union. Were my father to reappear suddenly and I told him that Lithuania was a member state, he would stare in disbelief and wonder what I was smoking.

Support Project Syndicate’s mission

Project Syndicate needs your help to provide readers everywhere equal access to the ideas and debates shaping their lives.

Learn more

The sad news, however, is that as the structure of the Union (for example, the single market and the single currency) has been put in place, the spirit of unity has died. The European “project” has become an exercise of unalloyed cynicism. The most depressing illustration of this has been the handling of the “European Constitution” and the Lisbon Treaty, and the totally unedifying means by which the European president, a key part of the Lisbon Treaty, is being selected.

The good news is that Tony Blair’s candidacy seems to have been ditched. The reasons for his inappropriateness for the post are too numerous to mention – the single word “Iraq” should suffice. It would have been an act of supreme cynicism and hypocrisy, even by European standards, had he been selected.

The bad news is that the other candidates allegedly being considered – all current or mainly former heads of government – are as inspiring as cold porridge. The implications of what we are currently witnessing could be enormous. As impressive as Europe’s history has been since the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community in 1957, by no means should it be assumed that the EU has become permanent.

Indeed, on the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, no less a Euro-luminary than Jacques Delors expressed the fear that the EU could “unravel”; Germany’s former foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, expressed similar sentiments in an interview on the BBC in early 2009.

While such an outcome may be improbable, it would be complacent folly to dismiss the possibility. No institution, society, or civilization can survive purely on autopilot. History, after all, is replete with “rise-and-fall” stories.

So who the EU president will be matters a lot. What is needed is someone of impeccable integrity and the capacity to inspire – and especially to engage Europe’s young people.

I see only two possible candidates that could meet these qualities: former Irish President Mary Robinson and French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. I have not excluded men a priori in this exercise, but none occurred to me, and in any case the EU establishment has too many middle-aged white men as it is.

Although the differences between Robinson and Lagarde are many, both would be excellent choices. Robinson may be the more inspirational candidate in light of the projects with which she has been involved since leaving office: Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Honorary President of Oxfam International, Chair of the International Institute for Environment and Development, Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, and founder of the Ethical Globalization Initiative.

Lagarde has other strengths. She is an accomplished professional, having been Chair of one of the world’s largest law firms and ranked by Forbes in 2008 as the 14th most powerful woman in the world. Thus, she has had two brilliant careers – in business and in politics – and has enormous charisma.

Both women therefore represent very different choices as leaders and potential role models. Moreover, Robinson, born in 1944, is a twentieth-century person. The presidency of the EU would mark the twilight of her career. Lagarde, at 53, is considerably younger.

Reviving the European dream, however, requires not just the choice of an individual. There has to be a cause. And this is where a key question hangs over Lagarde: how does she feel about Turkey’s membership in the Union? Her boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, is vehemently opposed, but Sarkozy (who cannot speak English and is computer illiterate) can hardly be described as a twenty-first-century role model. Lagarde, by contrast, seems to be a global Renaissance woman, but her views on Turkey’s EU membership could disprove that image.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Europe in the twenty-first century is to bring down the walls between its non-Muslim and Muslim communities. This applies not only to Muslim citizens in the EU, but also to those in the Balkans – notably Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania – in the former Soviet Union, and especially in Turkey.

This cannot be accomplished overnight. But the process that was initiated has since stalled. Incorporating Turkey – and eventually other majority Muslim European countries – into the EU is the European dream of the twenty-first century. Getting the right president in 2010 would be an important step in this journey. Robinson or Lagarde could be the inspiring leaders that the EU needs to make this dream a reality.