The international relevance of a small continent burdened with high unemployment and welfare-state economies that cannot cope with aging populations—a continent probably more popular with tourists than it is with investors—is not apparent at first glance, especially when juxtaposed with the rise of Asia. Nevertheless, Europe remains a perplexing, modern continent. From a political and institutional standpoint, this modernity is exemplified by the European Union (EU).
To be sure, the European Union is probably going through its most significant crisis in 50 years. The rejection of the EU draft constitution by referendum in France and the Netherlands—two founding member countries—is a significant setback for the European project. With the draft constitution (a compromise document that was taking the EU in the right direction) on its deathbed, European governments are groping for solutions. But this period of introspection and disarray will not last forever. Once European leaders find a way to accommodate what is probably the key message sent by Dutch and French voters—that the European Union needs the unambiguous support of its citizens and can no longer be driven primarily by its elites—the European project will be able to move forward again. In this new context, the constructive ambiguity that has allowed European leaders to build the EU without having to define precisely its institutional nature and ultimate goal will no longer be sufficient. Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of European citizens support the idea of a constitution for the European Union.
What remains new in old Europe is the European Union. It is a unique political construct that retains an extraordinary capacity to attract new members, probably more than it ever intended. Every club finds a degree of vindication in having a long list of applicants. Yet beyond the current phase of introspection is a need to explore—in a practical sense— what the existence of the European Union means for the world, as well as what benefits it brings to an unstable international environment.