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LISBON, Mar 1 2010 (IPS) - There is lively debate in the European Union about the global recession and the economic crisis in member countries, but relatively little discussion about the future of the Old Continent.

We need to acknowledge, above all else, that Western (EU-US) hegemony is a thing of the past. The world is now multilateral and recognises that emerging countries and those trying to emerge have an important role to play.

On the other hand, we are seeing the dawn of a US-China axis, despite the grave differences between the countries. The frustrated Climate Change Conference last December in Copenhagen brought to the surface a powerful manifestation of this development. The US ostensibly ignored the EU and reached an agreement with China on decisions that, lamentably, were contrary to the defence of the environment.

The truth is that the EU -or, more precisely, its leaders- have failed to see the Obama phenomenon and the innovation that his election brought to the world stage. Just as they were unable to prevent the 2007-2008 global crisis, they were also unable to take advantage of the great opportunity presented to reform the neoliberal system that generated the recession. They left intact tax shelters that facilitated major deals and scandalous acts of fraud. They didn’t dare blame those responsible for the crisis. Rather they saved a few bankrupt banks and corporations with taxpayer funds, while doing nothing to fight unemployment, inequality, or poverty.

With things in this state, it is legitimate to ask whether we are on the way to overcoming the crisis, as some economists are saying, or whether the recession will continue, aggravating social conflict.

We hoped that with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty the EU would be able to take a step forward on the institutional front. This was not the case. The new EU president Herman Van Rompuy, and the High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security Policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton, did not take the initiative, which is probably what the leaders of the major countries had in mind in appointing them.

In the face of the crisis, EU states acted on their own, each trying to save its own skin. Now, with trader attacks rattling the euro and nervousness cramping the European exchanges, they may have finally recognised that they must come up with a common -or at least coordinated- strategy to keep the problem from causing irreversible damage.

True, on February 4 the French and German governments (which seemed to have fallen out) held a joint summit in Paris to coordinate certain common policies. This strengthened the so-called French-German motor of Europe; according to Sarkozy, the plan was to launch bilaterally 80 measures to increase cooperation between the two states. But it is important to note that the two governments ignored the Union that they belong to. This is the opposite of the dream of Europe that the founders had in mind.

Will we convinced Europeanists allow the EU to deteriorate in the way certain of its leaders seem to want?

Do the leaders of France and Germany not see that without a strong and cohesive EU, they will represent little in the world that is taking form today?

It doesn’t look good. Nor does the public criticism we are hearing from Brussels, first aimed at Greece and now at the countries of southern Europe, especially Spain and Portugal. This benefits no one. Are the countries of Eastern Europe (with the exception of Poland), the Baltic, and others, like Ireland, somehow immune to the serious effects of the global crisis that originated in the United States?

In short, if the EU as a whole continues to avoid presenting a coherent and solidary response to the global crisis -which the people of Europe in all their diversity are for, the immigrant populations included- the coming decade will be very hard. The path to decline will lie open before us and our freedoms and social advances will be in jeopardy. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Mario Soares is ex-president and ex-prime minister of Portugal.

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