The age of the European superpower is upon us, but we need not fear.
That was the essence of the message delivered Monday in a speech by Rockwell Schnabel, a part-time Ketchum resident who served the last four years as the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
In an hour-long address to hundreds of writers and publishing-industry professionals gathered at Sun Valley Resort, Schnabel said the European Union is a surging economic and political force in the world, despite recent rejections of the proposed E.U. constitution by voters in France and the Netherlands.
Schnabel served as the chief U.S. representative to the E.U., based in Brussels, Belgium, from October 2001 to this year. In July, President George W. Bush nominated lawyer C. Boyden Gray as his replacement.
The speech at the annual Sun Valley Writers' Conference was in part an introduction to Schnabel's new book, "The Next Superpower? The Rise of Europe and its Challenges to the United States," which he co-authored with journalist Francis X. Rocca.
"They are a superpower today, based on the definition today," Schnabel said.
Indeed, the E.U. today has an economy that is the same size as that of the United States, he said. The number of its member nations—now 25—is growing and will likely reach 30. Romania and Bulgaria will be joining the union and the admission of Turkey is on the horizon. The common currency of the E.U., the euro, "is used by 300 million of the wealthiest people in the world" and is "here to stay," he said.
However, the Netherlands-born diplomat said it is still unclear whether the E.U. will match the power of the United States on the world stage.
There are 20 million unemployed people in Europe, Schnabel said. The leaders of two prominent E.U. nations, Germany and Italy, are facing challenges in the political arena. And voters in some countries are widely dissatisfied with the status quo—as was indicated when French and Dutch citizens earlier this year rejected the proposed E.U. constitution.
In France, "the vote, essentially was a referendum on the economy," mainly the country's lack of jobs, Schnabel said. In the Netherlands, where Schnabel attended Trinity College, "the vote ... was an anti-immigration vote," he said. Many Dutch are outraged over the 2004 murder of film director Theo van Gogh by Islamic extremists.
Although the challenges for the E.U. are many, Schnabel said, he is "positive" about the outlook for the union and its relationship with the United States.
"In every crisis, there is an opportunity."
He suggested that regulatory reforms, tax cuts and the elimination of trade barriers could vastly improve the economic situation of European nations that are struggling.
"That will dramatically increase the (gross domestic product) in Europe."
In addition, if Europeans start to spend their savings—they save six times more than Americans do—the overall E.U. economy "really could be big," he said.
Ireland, he noted, has bucked the trend of some major continental E.U. nations, taking an "offensive" approach to economics. France and Germany, meanwhile, have been "defensive."
"The more they try to protect the old jobs, the fewer new ones come in ... We are risk takers, we are entrepreneurs. The Europeans are risk-averse."
One setback in several European nations has been the fact that Europeans work less than Americans do, Schnabel said.
"Can you afford to continue to do that. Probably not."
Change will come to Europe, Schnabel concluded, and the odds are that the E.U. will eventually become a force equal to that of the United States. And, he said, because Americans and Europeans "have the same kind of thinking," opportunities to tackle social, political and health-related problems on a global scale will come about.
Certainly, China and India will increasingly hold a presence on the world stage, but the Chinese have "totally different sets of values and ideas."
In the end, Schnabel suggested that recently "troubled" relations between the United States and Europe—marked by disagreements over foreign policies in Iraq—could blossom into an era of unprecedented collaboration.
"We together can fight poverty and disease. We can fight terrorism."