RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
You might say that just over five decades into its existence, the European Union is in the grip of a midlife crisis. The euro has been shaken by the global economic downturn. The EU social model, based on various versions of the welfare state, has been eroded by debt and budget cutting. And a newly assertive Germany is causing anxiety among its union partners. Today, we start a week-long series on Europe's increasingly rocky struggle for unity. From the European Union capital in Brussels, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.
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SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Here there's no sense of crisis, but among the individual 27 member nations, there's growing angst about the future of the postwar effort to unite Europe. The effort was launched in 1950, as longtime enemies France and Germany agreed to pool their war-making industries, coal and steel. Four more countries soon signed on.
MARK EYSKENS: Not only a stroke of genius, it was a miracle.
POGGIOLI: Former Belgian Premier Mark Eyskens says the Coal and Steel Community was an effort to overcome Europe's dark, bloody past.
EYSKENS: To construct the reconciliation between Germany and France - no longer peace treaties, these were just pieces of paper without any impact. But we started to integrate the economies, and that brought about, indeed, the Pax Europea.
POGGIOLI: To build a Pax Europea, says former Italian diplomat Sergio Romano, collective amnesia was essential.
SERGIO ROMANO: It was obvious that you had to close, as rapidly as possible, the chapter of responsibilities, and move on.
POGGIOLI: Unidentified Group: (Singing in German)
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POGGIOLI: At a late 1989 summit chaired by French President Francois Mitterrand, the prospect of a reunited Germany stirred anxiety and suspicion.
EYSKENS: The atmosphere was extremely disturbing, and even shocking.
POGGIOLI: Belgium's Eyskens sat next to the British prime minister and German chancellor.
EYSKENS: At my left, Margaret Thatcher, at my right, Helmut Kohl. Margaret Thatcher became very - extremely nervous. She took the floor and said, Francois.
POGGIOLI: Thatcher scolded Mitterrand for a draft communique on the reunification of all German-speaking peoples - an ominous echo of Hitler's aspirations.
EYSKENS: I saw Helmut Kohl shattering, and he became extremely furious, and he said: I swear I will always defend a European Germany and never defend a German Europe. It was an historical phrase he repeated several times.
POGGIOLI: Its basic shortcoming - as in most European Union policies - is member states' unwillingness to give up their cherished national sovereignty. That's the dominating thinking since the 1648 Westphalia Treaty that established the nation-state, says former EU Commission President Romano Prodi, with a touch of resignation.
ROMANO PRODI: How can you change so many centuries of history in one shot?
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POGGIOLI: Anti-Brussels sentiments led to the defeat a hefty and undecipherable constitution by Dutch and French voters. One of the ill-fated document's authors was Belgian statesman Jean-Luc Dehaene. He concedes the emotional driving force that first united Europe had dried up.
JEAN: Citizens experience the global world as a threat. They are afraid of all the changes that are in the global society. They feel very insecure and go back to their own cocoon. You see some nationalism coming up again in different member states.
POGGIOLI: Turnout at European Parliament elections is plummeting as right-wing and xenophobic parties soar and independence-seeking regions spread from Britain to Belgium, from Italy to Spain.
GIULIANO AMATO: The atmosphere is of an increasing separation of our member states from each other.
POGGIOLI: Italian statesman Giuliano Amato, another constitution author, said in a lecture this year at New York University that Europeans feel disempowered and are turning against the world.
AMATO: The entire world that is going somewhere else and is growing, and we are not growing. And it's becoming younger, and we are becoming older. And it's open to expectation of a better future, and we are open to the expectations of a worse future.
POGGIOLI: These young civil servants have come to Brussels to learn about the EU. Brigitte Bay is Danish.
BRIGITTE BAY: Even though I'm European, I could not accept a European government without a national government.
POGGIOLI: Jakup Johanik comes from Prague.
JAKUP JOHANIK: I am really proud that, first, that I am Czech, and, second, that I am European.
POGGIOLI: Gavin Todd-James is from London.
GAVIN TODD: I'd probably call myself British rather than European, but it has certainly opened me up to the idea that, you know, I'm part of something wider.
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we go to Germany, which has thorny relations with the rest of the EU.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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