EUROPE'S SLOW TRIUMPH

Europeans seem to agree on nothing these days, except their dislike of the European Union. Begin with the European Constitution, likely to be adopted at the Dublin summit this week. For the longest time it looked to be DOA--dead on arrival. That it's gotten this far is no small miracle of Europoliticking, but will it survive the next round of amendments and popular referendums? Compromises have been struck throughout. British diplomats skulk in Brussels, drawing red lines around EU policies on taxes, social welfare, foreign affairs and transnational crime fighting. Small and large countries quibble endlessly over voting weights, prelude to decades of coming budget battles. Some Europeans insist that God--a Roman Catholic God--be written into the preamble.

Then there were last week's European Parliament elections--desultory, as always, with low turnout and unedifying debate. But they were also marked by disturbingly strong showings from Euro-skeptic right-wingers inveighing against foreigners, Eurocrats, Turks and the perks Euro-parliamentarians get. Even in sober Britain, the UK Independence Party, devoted to withdrawal from the EU, looked set to outpoll more established rivals.

What next? With May 1 enlargement behind them, EU leaders will now dance around the political powder keg of Turkish membership. Can 100 million Muslims be integrated into Europe? Even proponents doubt that full membership is possible at all--and, if so, only in 15 to 20 years. Fewer still dream of that holy grail of European unity, a common foreign policy. Aspired to since de Gaulle, that too seems DOA.

Or is it? Let's have some historical perspective. Extremist electioneering by media personalities, diplomatic haggling over agricultural subsidies, disputes over the name of God--these make for great headlines but in fact are soon forgotten. Even this week's constitutional treaty is of relatively little import. It is a piece of paper that consolidates a process already well underway. Slowly and quietly, the EU goes from success to success, transforming Europe and the globe.

Remember: the EU is a distinctive creation, the first wholly new political structure to emerge and prosper since the rise of the social-democratic welfare state a century ago. The EU as a vehicle for sharing power between national governments and an international institution has evolved into a complex but effective system of checks and balances. Policy can be made only by painstaking consensus. By the time 70 percent of the 25 member governments, a technocratic European Commission and a directly elected European Parliament agree to a law, it is almost certain to represent a stable compromise. Where such action is not possible, governments move forward in "coalitions of the willing," as with the single currency.

The result: it always takes the EU a long time to act. Change comes incrementally, through a long process of trial and error, leading eventually to revolutionary innovations. Over five decades this process has eliminated tariffs and quotas. Regulatory barriers are gone. So are border controls. Airbus now outcompetes Boeing; Galileo outperforms GPS. On trade and competition policy, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and Pascal Lamy, his European counterpart, meet as equals, even if Secretary of State Colin Powell and Javier Solana, the EU foreign-policy czar, do not.

Yes, "Europe" lags on foreign policy. Still, just last month the EU brought 10 more members into the fold, with several more on the docket. It took 15 years, but look at the results: in country after country, nationalist forces were defeated at the polls by coalitions held together by little more than the promise of becoming European--a process now being repeated in the Balkans and Turkey. No policy pursued by any Western countries over the past decade has contributed more to democratization and thereby global peace and security.

Europeans may initially have been divided over Iraq, but they are now more united than ever around the principle that pre-emptive intervention must be multilaterally sanctioned. They pushed the United States to craft a coherent policy to pressure Iran. European counterterrorism policy is tough. And when it comes to instruments like aid, peacekeepers, international monitors and international legal legitimacy, the Americans cannot compete with European "soft power." The first EU troops are replacing U.S. and United Nations forces in Bosnia; in total, EU troops stationed in peacekeeping missions around the world are not much smaller than the number of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Americans will continue to ridicule or ignore the EU. But is America's way--decisive military action, bright lines in the sand, bold optimism about "democratizing" the Middle East--really better? A generation from now, historians may look back at the Iraq war and see a blunder, the last gasp of an archaic policy. But they will surely judge Europe's quiet incrementalism a triumph.