The European Union, which seems at times to change so slowly, will have a revolutionary year in 2002. The introduction of the euro, the European single currency, will affect over 300 million people in 12 countries. It is an ambitious and unprecedented undertaking and the euro is likely to be both a symbol and a driver of European integration.
On January 1, Europeans will say goodbye to the currencies they have known for a lifetime ... the franc, the mark and the lira among them. They will be replaced by crisp new euro bills and shiny new euro coins.
European Union leaders hope that a successful euro will create a genuine pan-European identity, both inside and outside the EU, even though Britain, Denmark and Sweden are not participating in the project.
Peter Ludlow, chairman of a Brussels research institute, Eurocomment, says the euro should be a giant leap forward for European integration. "There's nothing closer to most people's hearts than what is in their wallet or in their pocket. And from now on, this will be European," he says. "So my guess is, that this will really become tangible evidence of the extent to which we are already united and a further catalyst of change."
Europe's ever-closer union has been unfolding for 50 years, but most of the important developments, such as common tariffs and the creation of a single market, have been technical. And those aspects of integration that do touch the citizen, such as disappearing customs posts and the elimination of border controls, do not have an impact on people's everyday lives.
But Professor Jerome Sheridan, who heads the Brussels Center of Washington's American University, says European citizens will, as a result of the euro launch, start identifying more with the European Union in ways they did not in the past. "The euro is a real, physical existing symbol of the EU that people are going to carry in their pockets on a day-to-day basis. And that's going to have a very profound impact psychologically on European citizens and begin to create more of a European identity," he predicts.
A second big change will begin taking place later in 2002, when the EU opens its doors to as many as 10 countries from central, eastern and southern Europe in the years ahead. EU enlargement will not only redraw the political map of Europe. It will also bring about a debate on democratic accountability of EU institutions.
The EU will launch a year-long convention made up of constitutional experts, national parliamentarians and members of the European Parliament to discuss how an enlarged union can be more relevant to its citizens.
Mr. Sheridan notes that European leaders have, in the past, paid lip service to such ideas as transparency in EU decision-making, which is dominated by national governments. But now, he says, they cannot escape serious debate on those issues. "For the first time, there is going to be a group of people coming together, discussing big issues that are normally just written about in obscure academic journals and academic conferences, that are discussing these things in a very public way with the legitimacy of national governments saying 'yes, we want you to discuss this.' So whatever document this convention comes out with is going to be very difficult for member states to say 'no' to," Mr. Sheidan says.
Topping the convention's agenda will be how best to share power between the European institutions in Brussels and the member states. Mr. Ludlow, of Eurocomment, notes that most convention members, including those from candidate countries, will be members of their national parliaments, traditionally closer to the feelings of their constituents than national leaders. "What gives me ground for confidence, I think, is, first of all, the group will be dominated by national parliamentarians," he says. "And I think that's a good thing because national parliaments have got to feel they own the integration process much more than they have done hitherto."
Though the EU seems intent on reforming its institutions to make them more efficient and democratic as it prepares to expand, it is often held hostage by national interests. That is the case with the bloc's embryonic rapid reaction force, designed to act in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions where NATO as a whole does not want to get involved.
The force was proclaimed operational at the EU's recent summit near Brussels, but it is a long way from being so. Mr. Sheridan says the problem now is that Greece is blocking a deal accepted by its rival, Turkey, that would guarantee the EU access to NATO resources. "The fact is that, as long as Greece stops the European Union from having access to NATO's assets and NATO's planning capabilities, the European Union will not be able to mount anything in terms of an operation," he says.
The EU, the world's biggest aid donor, has also had a problem translating its financial clout into political influence. EU optimists say developing political influence, like developing a common foreign and defense policy, is a long-term project that gains ground incrementally.
Pessimists say the EU will never reach that goal because Britain, France and Germany - the bloc's Big Three - will always pursue their own national interests at the expense of those of the EU as a whole.
Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001