The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that watching Edmund Kean, the great tragedian of the London stage 200 years ago, was like "reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning." That's how we like our great moments in history to be, surrounded by drama, attended by heroes. By those standards, the process that led to the signing of the Treaty of Rome 50 years ago was almost ineffably mundane a series of long meetings of forgotten bureaucrats in rooms foul with tobacco smoke. No blood was shed, few memorable speeches made; the heroes were those who could cajole a compromise into being over a hurried coffee, or draft a clause with exactly the right kind of nice phrase that would win broad support.
Yet the founding of the European Economic Community in 1957 was a momentous event. Today's Europe is the largest expanse of peace and widely shared prosperity in the world. It is perfectly true that the E.E.C. as it was called in 1957, the European Union as it is now is not solely responsible for that happy outcome. After the carnage of World War II, it was as much American minds and muscle as European ones that determined that Europe needed new institutions binding nations together if it was to avoid the catastrophes of war. Indeed, NATO and the Marshall Plan, both hatched in Washington, predated the E.E.C.'s precursor, the European Coal and Steel Community.
Yet for all that, the decision in 1957 by six nations to pool sovereignty in multinational institutions marked a decisive break with the past. As it became apparent that the E.E.C. worked that common markets provided the sort of stability in which economies can grow so its appeal spread. Soon, everyone with a claim to be European wanted to join. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the time was ripe for a dramatic expansion of the E.U. to the east, and gradually, that happened. The E.U. now has 27 members, including three former Soviet republics.
The E.U. has spawned admirers how could it not? but not imitators. No other multinational grouping not Mercosur in Latin America, not asean in Southeast Asia has anything like the powerful institutions of the Union. Europe's history and geography, it turns out, are unique. Its nations are small enough and close enough to understand each other and have shared values; but at the same time, all of Europe lived through such horrors in the 20th century that its nations' postwar leaders needed little convincing of the virtues of cooperation. In Europe, nationalism has a bad name; in much of the rest of the world, where the memory of colonialism is still fresh, it is a source of pride and identity. Though Americans were midwives to the E.U.'s birth Dean Acheson, the postwar U.S. Secretary of State, thought that Britain had made a historic error by failing to join the coal and steel community they have often since been bemused by Europe's lack of nationalistic assertiveness. As Roger Cohen wrote in the International Herald Tribune recently, "The quiet glory of the postnational, postmodern entity is not the glory of the young, vigorous, flag-waving America."
True, that judgment would have been harder to make in the early 1990s. Then, Jacques Delors was the President of the European Commission, the single currency was being planned, and François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl were shaping European policy. It seemed certain that political union would follow the economic variety and the E.U. become a second democratic Atlantic superpower. But that dream was curdled by European dithering in the Balkan wars and by the concomitant realization that European electorates had no stomach for displays of superpowerdom as they have been conventionally measured: that is to say, in killing capability. In 2005, voters in France and the Netherlands two founding members rejected a draft European constitution, without which political union is impossible. Javier Solana, the E.U.'s estimable foreign affairs czar, may bustle around the Middle East as he has been doing of late, but nobody pretends that when he does so he carries the weight of the U.S. Secretary of State.
But perhaps the old measures of power and influence are not adequate to our time. After all, the horrors of Iraq are loud testimony to the limitations of hard power, applied by men bearing arms. The nations and people of the E.U. are generous when it comes to aiding the poor and disadvantaged; sensible in forming policies that address pressing environmental challenges. And perhaps above all as the next four pages show the institutions that give shape to Europe's growing unity have made life better for those who live there. That seems a timid, small success. But for anyone old enough to remember the European misery out of which the Treaty of Rome took shape, it is a stunning miracle.