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“History in the Making” is an oft-quoted cliché. But what University of Pittsburgh Professor Alberta Sbragia witnessed from her hotel room in Brussels was no cliché. It was a reality that is leading to profound changes in the world today.


State of the Union


Cindy Gill


The television screen glows with images of people streaming toward a once-forbidden border. The news reports show traffic jams along the city’s boulevards. Drivers and passengers abandon their cars, trucks, and taxis and keep going on foot. Fireworks flash and boom in the evening sky. Champagne bottles spray bubbly fizz on those gathering on neighborhood streets, prompting rowdy cheers. Singing, mostly in German, breaks out spontaneously. Within an hour or two, the number of revelers swells from hundreds to thousands, and more are coming.

Alberta Sbragia, a University of Pittsburgh political scientist, watches the scene on her TV set at a Brussels hotel. She is in Belgium’s capital to meet with a European leader for her research on the increasing alliances among Western European countries. Even she—a longtime expert in politics—is astonished by what she sees happening in neighboring Germany.

The celebration erupted a few hours earlier, at about 7 p.m., when a communist party leader in East Germany announced that East Berliners would be allowed to travel across the Berlin Wall’s border for the first time in nearly 30 years. Officially, the border isn’t open until the next day but, even before the announcement ends, East and West Berliners begin heading for the wall that divides their city—a psychological and physical symbol of Cold War politics, pitting democracy against communism.

Mere days ago, anyone attempting to breach the wall would have been arrested or shot by Communist guards. But the recent thawing of the Cold War has already loosened border restrictions in other Communist Eastern European countries. Now the thaw has spread to Berlin, opening a new gateway to the West. In Brussels, Sbragia watches the hotel television into the night as the event unfolds.

The Berlin Wall is collapsing.

The next day—November 10, 1989—she sits in an ornate government office at the Berlaymont Building on the Rue de la Loi. She’s waiting for her appointment, which has been delayed. Thirty minutes pass. She can’t stop thinking about history in the making. Overnight, Europeans from east, west, north, and south have traveled for hours to get to Berlin. Now, hundreds of thousands of people have arrived at the Berlin Wall—to scale it, to chop off pieces of it, to celebrate its fall. It’s Mardi Gras, Independence Day, and New Year’s Eve in one symbolic moment—European style, with a profound historic twist.

Still, Sbragia waits. Another half-hour passes. Eventually, a secretary brings news, speaking in French: I’m very sorry. You will have to come back another time. An emergency meeting has been called to discuss “the German question.”

Sbragia knows “the German question” is an old term, relegated to the turbulent times dating back to WWI when Germany invaded Belgium and other countries were pulled into the fray. A generation later, Germany again began to invade and occupy neighboring countries, leading to WWII.

What to do about Germany? Under Hitler, the country attempted to conquer Europe, including the Soviet Union. When the Allies defeated Hitler in 1945, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, with each zone governed by a different country: the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Berlin was similarly divided.

Stalin then attempted to exert his country’s Socialist-Communist influence on the entire war-torn city, and the zones of occupation essentially became a distinct divide: West Berlin, supported by the democratic Allies, and East Berlin, supported by the Soviet Union. The rift extended beyond the city to divide the continent, East versus West. In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, a wall of barbed wire, and then concrete, was erected by the Communists as a physical barrier to stop East Germans and Eastern Europeans from attempting to cross into the West.

Back in her Brussels hotel room, Sbragia finds it hard to comprehend the wall’s demise. She realizes that it marks the end of an era stretching back to the close of World War II.

“It was one of those moments when you think, ‘Okay, things are changing in a major way,’” she says. “But nobody knew in what direction. It was very unclear as you were living through it. You just couldn’t believe it, even as you watched it on television.”

The picture is clearer today. Communist control in Eastern Europe unraveled. The repercussions, though, are far from settled. A new power is emerging in the world—some say a superpower.

Pitt’s Sbragia has been studying the changes in Europe for more than three decades. She is a UCIS research professor of political science at the University, with expertise in public policy, urban affairs, and comparative European-American politics. She marvels at what’s happening in Europe: “It is as novel as the American Constitution was in 1787.”

Sbragia thinks that many Americans’ mental maps are stuck in the 1950s, when Europe was a collection of distinctly separate countries with their own sovereign government, policies, laws, tariffs, immigration rules, border controls, and assorted idiosyncracies. But something else has quietly emerged beyond this patchwork of independent nations.

It’s called the European Union. The EU is a group of European countries that collaborate as a single body to boost prosperity and the prospects for peace across the continent. The 25 member nations established a common, centralized government structure to decide matters of shared interest at the European level, not simply the national level. This unprecedented change, steeped in cooperation and even camaraderie, is what compels Sbragia to draw parallels with the birth of the United States. “What’s happening is the transformation of the continent,” she says. “The whole of Europe is being reshaped by the European Union.”

The EU, for instance, has its own capital—Brussels, Belgium. It has a European Parliament, elected by voters in member nations, to adopt legislation on matters related to all Europeans. Working with the parliament, an EU Council of Ministers passes laws and consists of top European political leaders who are roughly equivalent to U.S. Cabinet Secretaries. Other EU institutions include a Court of Justice, similar to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a central bank that determines monetary policy. The European Commission negotiates for the entire EU in the World Trade Organization. The European Council, a kind of collective presidency, consists of prime ministers from member countries who make strategic decisions about the political system and constitutional issues.

In fact, the EU is working now to establish a constitution, which has made news recently as France and the Netherlands voted to reject initial ratification. Sbragia says it is precisely because the EU is transforming Europe that the situation is so politically charged. “If the EU did not matter, the constitution’s ratification vote would have been a non-event,” she says. “Even without a constitution, the EU is key to the shaping of Europe, European affairs, and the relationship between the United States and Europe.”

When a country joins the EU, it must abide by a substantial set of agreements and laws covering policies that affect agriculture, the environment, internal and external trade, security, immigration, and significant aspects of economic policy.

Those who have traveled to Europe in recent years may have noticed the changes. No passport checks at border crossings. Lithuanian trucks delivering products to London. Cafégoers equally at home in Paris, Munich, or Prague. A single currency—the Euro—used across multiple countries (12 so far, and likely to expand). “It’s the first time Europe has had a common currency since the Roman Empire,” notes Sbragia.

A common EU driver’s license isn’t far behind. And soon, there will be an EU Web domain similar to the U.S.-registered .com. The domain—perhaps .eu—will be applied across all member countries. For example, a company called TourUs won’t have domains called TourUs.italy or TourUs.france; it will simply be TourUs.eu.

“The European Union is a completely unique structure in world history,” says Sbragia, “which is why it’s so difficult for people to understand.”

And that’s precisely why Pitt’s European Union Center exists, with Sbragia as its director. The University of Pittsburgh is one of only 10 institutions around the nation selected and funded by the EU to get the word out. In July, the European Commission further endorsed Pitt’s EU efforts by renewing support and designating the center as a European Union Center of Excellence, including a grant of $100,000 Euros annually to expand Pitt’s EU activities. Additionally, the commission named Sbragia a Jean Monnet Chair ad personam, an honor reserved for elite American academicians whose careers exemplify excellence in teaching and research related to the EU.

The Pitt center’s mission is primarily educational, and it cultivates positive relations between the United States and the EU. The center supports graduate students studying the EU and develops classes and programs on the topic. It brings visitors, scholars, and policymakers from Europe to Pittsburgh and other U.S. cities. It sponsors an EU policy conference each year, holds an annual EU summit with two partner campuses in the region, and organizes a national “model EU” for undergraduates. Its civic outreach includes area high schools, too.

Sbragia believes she can’t overstate the importance of its work, because the EU is rapidly becoming an influential force in the world, a shaper of things to come internationally. “The next generation needs to know more about the EU than the current generation does,” she says candidly. Pitt, she adds, has plenty of faculty who are well known for their expertise on Europe; and the EU library within Pitt’s Hillman Library is one of the best in the world.

Sbragia, it turns out, is among the best in the world too, when it comes to expertise on the EU. Not long before she visited Brussels during the fall of the Berlin wall, she received a call from Thomas Mann, a well-respected senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He got right to the point—asking her to direct a project on European integration. She eagerly accepted his offer. The project included editing a book on Europe’s changing status, which had roots dating back to 1951, when six Western European countries agreed to work together on limited economic issues. That initial joint effort led to expanded agreements on other economic and policy concerns, culminating in a common market that continues today. Over time, more Western European countries began to collaborate, primarily for economic benefits. By the early 1970s nine countries were jointly cooperating for the common good under the name European Community, which laid the foundation for the EU phenomenon that sprouted in 1992.

Aware of Sbragia’s fine reputation as a political scientist, Mann called her for good reason. He knew, for instance, that she had taken a year-long sabbatical from Pitt to be a visiting associate professor in Harvard’s business school, where she gained valuable economic insight into Europe’s evolving situation. What Mann may not have known is that she had spent her life balancing European and American perspectives.

She grew up on a Nevada ranch in the 1950s and remembers sitting at the kitchen table listening to her father talk, in Italian, about politics and world events. There was always a newspaper in the house, and every night they watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Sbragia’s parents were originally from Italy’s Tuscany. Even as a child, she bridged the worlds of Europe and the United States—speaking Italian at home, yet perfect book-taught English at school. “I used to go to PTA meetings and translate for my mom from English to Italian,” recalls Sbragia, with a smile. “I think that gave me insight into adult society at an earlier age than other kids.”

She was ahead of her peers in other ways, too. She entered Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif., at age 16, majoring in French and political science. In her junior year, she went abroad to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, which fed her fascination with Europe. In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she took her PhD comprehensives in both American and European politics, a rare occurrence. Most doctoral students are eager simply to pass one comprehensive exam, but Sbragia hedged her bets on getting funding to support graduate work in Europe. She did get support—a Fulbright scholarship in Milan, Italy, to study Italian politics and public policy.

During her graduate school studies, she became increasingly interested in Europe’s development in the post-WWII years. Essentially, she says, an entire generation came into power whose families had been personally affected—sometimes devastated—by world wars in Europe. At the time, many wondered whether the new leaders were destined to repeat history. “They could either replicate what had happened, or they could try to transform this process and do things which were completely new in order to stop this cycle of warfare,” says Sbragia. She was heartened that more and more Europeans seemed to agree it was cheaper to pay translators than to fight wars. That’s the essence of the EU’s creation.

After Sbragia received her doctoral degree in 1974, she was recruited to the University of Pittsburgh to teach American and European urban studies. Today, in her fourth-floor office in Posvar Hall, the book she compiled and edited for the Brookings Institution, Euro-Politics, sits high on a shelf, nestled among other books and journals. She has written plenty of publications, enough titles to fill more than five pages of her CV. When she’s not busy teaching, she mentors undergraduate and graduate students, writes grants, serves on faculty committees, leads two University centers (the second is Pitt’s Center for Western European Studies, also part of the University Center for International Studies), and lectures on the EU around the world.

As one of the world’s leading experts on Europe’s political and economic climate, Sbragia offers a bold assertion. There is no longer Western or Eastern Europe in the traditional sense, she says. There is only Europe, at least in the economic and political arenas.

So far, the EU consists of 25 member nations, and Bulgaria and Romania will be added in 2007. Croatia and Turkey, among others, are also eager to join. “If you’re part of the EU,” says Sbragia, “you’ve given up some of your formal sovereignty, but you get to participate in an entity that matters. Basically, you have two choices: You either get in and give up some of your sovereignty, or you stay out and really get hurt.”

International relations haven’t yet appeared on the EU’s radar screen. Historically, the United States and NATO have supplied military defense to Europe, so foreign policy and defense strategies are not as clearly defined for the EU. For now, member nations still retain sovereignty in these kinds of areas.

“Where you really can’t ignore the EU is on the economic side,” says Sbragia. Since 1992, EU members have acted as a single market, with the free movement of goods, services, capital, and labor across all members’ borders. This eliminates trade barriers and enables all members to abide by the same set of trade and tariff policies. The EU also acts as a single trade entity in handling imports and exports beyond EU borders.

Now countries exporting their products to the EU must deal with one powerful trade market instead of 25 individual countries. With more countries expected to join the EU, its population could eventually swell to more than 600 million. A united Europe, boasting those numbers, would have superpower status as a consumer market.

That may be why U.S. President George W. Bush made it a point to spend time in Brussels very early in his second term. The market in Europe now has significant influence on the U.S. economy. Microsoft, for instance, decided to drop its plan to install Windows Media Player in its exported products—because the EU said, “No.” Had Microsoft gone ahead with its plan, it would have been shut out of the EU market—all 25 countries—at a time when global expansion is essential to success for most Fortune 500 companies.

“Anyone who wants to do business with the EU is going to have to meet EU economic standards,” says Sbragia. “That is going to be very important at the international level.”

Clearly, with the rise of the EU, changes on the global scene are coming. What isn’t clear is how soon and to what extent. “The process is not linear, and it’s not very predictable,” she says. “In looking ahead, a lot will depend on external events, which can really accelerate things.” The EU contends with a vast diversity in people, ideas, and languages. Coalitions, bargaining, compromise, and leadership are essential in a multinational, multiparty, multilayered structure. Sbragia knows that walls can go up as easily as they can fall.

 

 

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