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Workers from the Continental tire factory in Clairox, France, protest in front of the French News agency Agence-France-Presse headquarters in Paris to influence talks on compensations following the planned closure of their site.
Central tension between national priorities, collective interests intensifies

Berlin - The European Union is an extraordinary experiment in shared sovereignty, creating a zone of peace that now stretches from Britain to the Balkans. The union of 27 countries is the world's most formidable economic bloc, incorporating 491 million people in an integrated market that produces nearly a third more than the United States.

But the global economic crisis has made it clear that Europe remains less than the sum of its parts.

The crisis has presented the European Union with its greatest challenge, but even many committed Europeanists believe that the alliance is failing the test. European leaders, their focus on domestic politics, disagree sharply about what to do to combat the slump. They have feuded over how much to stimulate the economy. They argue about whether the European Central Bank should worry more about the deep recession or future inflation. And they have rushed to protect jobs in their home markets at the expense of those in other member countries.

The latest European parliamentary elections on Sunday drove home the point. Only 43 percent of Europeans voted - a record low turnout, despite the financial crisis and compulsory voting in some countries. Far-right parties, opposed to the European Union and to immigrants from poor member countries, recorded gains, as did the Greens. Those who did vote weighed in largely on national issues.

With American leadership undercut by divisive foreign wars and the United States' economic model of market freedom and light regulation under great challenge, Europe matters. The "European model" of significant government involvement in the economy; close supervision of finance, industry and labor; and generous state-run pensions and health care, is being praised in some circles as a freshly viable alternative to Anglo-American-style capitalism.

But although the subprime mortgage crisis began in the United States, Europe is arguably suffering more. The International Monetary Fund estimates that European banks hold more bad assets than American ones and have written down much less. Budget deficits are rising, and unemployment, especially among the young, is already at its highest in 10 years.

With the response hobbled by a fractious European Union, many economists now expect the downturn to last longer here than across the Atlantic.

"We are in a moment of a very severe crisis," said Joschka Fischer, a Green Party politician and former German foreign minister. "We have a traumatic lack of leadership; we are caught right in the middle by the flood."

National vs. common good

The central tension in the union has always been between national priorities and collective interests. Ceding national rights and powers - over currency, trade, customs duties - has never been simple, even in good times. In bad times, like the current downturn, national politics trump the common interest. Leaders move to protect their own industries, workers and voters at the expense of those elsewhere. Workers still seethe at the sacrifices they feel they make on behalf of integration.

At the Goodyear Dunlop tire factory in Amiens, in northern France, Thierry Fagot, 36, is losing the job he has held for 13 years. He sees competition within the alliance as part of the reason.

"I feel like I was fooled. I mean, we created Europe to protect us, and for a long time it worked," he said, explaining that Europe provided a market for the factory's tires and established safety rules. "Now, with the competition of Eastern countries, I feel like Europe created this situation where we're losing our jobs to another E.U. country. How can this be for the greater good?"

The European Union is not about to collapse amid such antagonisms. But some of the continent's most devoted advocates are scaling down their ambitions. Few speak any longer of a Europe that is a significant political or military counterweight to the United States.

Mr. Fischer, the Green Party politician, is a committed European who bemoans "the post-'89 generation's" indifference to the ideals of a European destiny, and the retreat, under the pressure of the crisis, to nationalist goals and rhetoric.

"Crises are always moments of truth because they relentlessly expose both the strengths and weaknesses of all the players involved," said Mr. Fischer, criticizing in particular the narrow, national vision of the German government.

He said the European Central Bank, which sets a major borrowing rate for the 16 nations that use the euro as a common currency, has done well. But the European Commission, the union's main executive body, "played a zero role in the present crisis, and this was a transnational crisis, so the role of the commission should have been just the opposite."

Instead, European leaders are concentrating on passing the long-delayed Lisbon Treaty, to create a European president and foreign minister and simplify decision-making. But the treaty has little to say about economic matters.

The strains are evident in the way countries have worked to bail out their own banks and rescue national factories of global automobile companies, when a broader European policy would be more logical. But they are also visible in the inability to agree on a policy toward Afghanistan or on a joint energy policy to reduce European dependence on Russian natural gas.

German-French tensions

Germany and France together are the traditional motor of the European Union, but relations between them are cold, with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, putting national interests first, whether the issue is social benefits or saving jobs in the faltering car industry.

Divisions are also evident between northern Europe and southern Europe, with more fiscally responsible countries like Germany only reluctantly promising to help floundering economies like those of Spain and Greece. Solidarity, meant to be the great principle of the European Union, is fraying as well on East-West lines, with the countries that use the euro reluctant to jeopardize the currency's stability by rescuing members outside the so-called eurozone, like Bulgaria and Romania.

Few want to consider what happens to Ukraine, a nonmember, where many European banks, especially German and Austrian ones, are heavily invested.

And the promise of a Europe "without borders" has been undermined by a reaction in hard times against immigrants from around the region who are seen as competing for jobs.

Before the European parliamentary elections, Mr. Sarkozy and Ms. Merkel issued a joint letter. "We want a strong Europe that protects us, we reject a bureaucratic Europe that mechanically applies nitpicking rules," they wrote.

But they disagree sharply on the role of public spending and the European Central Bank. Mr. Sarkozy favors more stimulus and giving the central bank the flexibility to buy bonds or public sector loans to help revive lending. Ms. Merkel, in contrast, has attacked rising budget deficits and criticized the central bank for reducing interest rates too much and risking future inflation.

They agree, however, on protecting jobs in their home markets. While Mr. Sarkozy has been criticized for providing billions to protect French car companies, Ms. Merkel, with a national election in September, has just brokered an expensive deal for Opel, the European branch of General Motors, almost entirely based on saving German jobs.

The former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing said that since the French rejected a European constitution he helped to draft in 2005, national leaders had dominated those who favor a stronger union.

"It's retrograde," he said in an interview. "In a short-term crisis, you may have national intervention to protect people, but it's not a policy, it's just a reaction," he said, putting the single market at risk. "The trend must be to see the European market as a whole."

Questioning a bloc's purpose

In Calais, France, the Schaeffler Chain Drive Systems factory, German-owned, makes parts for Opel. A third of the workers were laid off a month ago, including Dany Valcke, 53. He was a foreman, but now, as he says, "time is all I've got," and he doubts he will ever find another factory job.

"Europe is a good thing, it allows our countries to have a stronger voice in the world, and it brought peace," Mr. Valcke said. "But economically, it's not so good. Many have lost their jobs to European countries where the work force is cheaper. They are part of Europe, but if you want Europe, you can't have these two competing systems."

The European Union "didn't try hard enough to help its people through the crisis. It probably doesn't even have the power for this," he said. Then he asked, a bit plaintively: "Sometimes I wonder what it's for, if not for this? I find the U.S. government response to the crisis much more appropriate."