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OPINION

Europe, the pachyderm

I think of the rhinoceros every time the EU makes some move that affects us

In the year 1515 a rhinoceros brought from India arrived in Lisbon, where a friend of Albrecht Dürer happened to be staying. He described the then-unknown animal by letter, to such effect that the artist was able to compose an approximate drawing of it. The rhinoceros, and its hornless cousin the hippopotamus, are animals of an antediluvian beauty, creatures from a dream world. It's hard to believe they still exist, in a world as expeditious as ours. One charm of the rhino, exaggerated in a pre-Cubist manner in Dürer's hearsay version, is its tough skin, amounting to a suit of armor. Indeed, the Africans used to make shields from it. Another is its phlegmatic, unhurried pace.

This is why I think of the rhinoceros every time the EU makes some move that affects us. The EU is a phlegmatic, pachydermic beast from a dream world, that seems to be turning on its inventors. I thought of this when Javier Solana - once the best culture minister we ever had, now long installed in the hierarchy of Brussels - said something he meant to be constructive. Elena Valenciano, also a Socialist politician, had remarked that "Europe doesn't love us, she only scolds us." To which the former NATO secretary-general Solana replied: "Never mind if Europe loves us or not, or dictates to us or not... We have to love her!"

Yes, we used to love the European Union, before the dream turned to a nightmare. It used to be a gazelle, a peacock, a bird of paradise. This is no longer the case. The mercantile Europe is suffocating most of us. The Europe of jurisprudence rightly raps our governments on the knuckles when they abuse civil rights. This vigilance would be welcome if it produced some sort of general salvation, and not a mere regimentation produced by the "happy few" of an expensive bureaucracy.

For some years now we have known that the EU was no good for foreign policy, now entrusted to a dim diplomat entirely lacking in the vision and drive of, for example, Hillary Clinton. Then there is the failure of the costly system for detection of illegal immigrant boats headed for the coast of Europe. The system, we were told, was not to protect our labor market from desperate immigrants who would drive wages down, but to protect them from drowning in the sea. They are still coming, still drowning, still huddled in camps.

We used to love the European Union, before the dream turned to a nightmare

And what to say of the European Commission, still headed by one of the slipperiest politicians on the scene. Have we forgotten Durão Barroso at the side of Bush, Blair and Aznar in the repulsive photo of the Azores, as host and accomplice of one of the infamies of recent history, the Iraq war? This same man now keeps proposing fascistoid personalities for posts on the Commission, to see if they get in. In 2004 the fundamentalist and hard-line Berlusconian, Rocco Buttiglione, proposed as Commissioner for Civil Rights, failed to make the grade; but more recently (protests being drowned by the noise of crisis), the "Maltese hawk" Tonio Borg got in as health commissioner, in spite of his record (anti-abortion, raging homophobe). Was there not someone less insane at hand?

A few days ago Javier Solana once again aired his Europeanist faith. Our EU statesman called for "more imagination in the drive to EU integration," while denouncing the "false and growing sensation that the EU is acting against us." I do not believe this artifact, engendered with the best intentions and hopes, acts against us. It just doesn't act, and when it does, it amuses itself with irrelevant legalisms. The creature has grown so huge that, whatever the good intentions , it is impracticable, becoming a breeding ground of new inequalities, new rackets, vested interests and submissions to an unjust world order.

I have no solution to offer, of course. But the reality of the EU pachyderm, as we know it, is part of the problem.