Europe recalls past, looks to future
Cultures collide as the European Union countries try to move forward.
REIMS, France (AP) -- It's a transcendent turning point, indelibly etched in mortar and minds.
In a windowless room tucked in the corner of a brick schoolhouse, yellowing battle maps bristling with rusty pins bear witness to the spot where World War II ended in Europe and a continent could begin to rebuild itself out of the rubble.
Sixty years ago, as flashbulbs burst, a German general nervously puffing on a cheap cigar signed a hastily typed declaration of unconditional surrender. Minutes later, a five-star American commander dashed off a 17-word telegram ending five years of horror and Holocaust:
"The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 3:00 a.m. local time, May 7, 1945. Eisenhower."
And the legacy lives on.
It is evident in the hopes and dreams of a united, prosperous, ever-widening European Union -- an eclectic and improbable bloc of nations brimming with promise and potential.
It is reflected in the challenges wrought by the biggest melting pot the world has ever seen -- a stew of peoples spiced by ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural differences, united by a singular desire to forge a common future.
It resonates in the fears and uncertainty of citizens of 25 countries and counting -- a United States of Europe rebuilt with American aid but created squarely in its own image to become the most powerful force for peace and democracy in Eurasia.
As Europe prepares to mark the milestone -- 60 years from the day its war ended -- it is still writing the epilogue. Little wonder: This was a global conflict that drew in 61 countries and claimed 55 million lives. In a sense, it would not end for Europeans for another 45 years, when the Iron Curtain came down and a continent sundered by the Cold War could feel whole again.
Sixty years on, the challenges remain immense.
Led by a generation barely born when the war ended, Europe's historic bonds with America feel looser today, weakened by a host of differences of which the Iraq war is just one.
The postwar dispensation that was supposed to be the bedrock of Europe's peace -- cradle-to-grave social safety nets and jobs for all -- is up against double-digit unemployment, staggeringly high taxes and overburdened welfare systems.
Europe knows it needs immigrants to make up for its dwindling birthrate, yet fears immigration will dilute national characteristics already threatened by the leveling effect of EU membership. Resurgent racism, nationalism and neo-Nazism lurk in the shadows.
In the eastern French city of Reims, where Charles VII was crowned in the presence of Joan of Arc in 1429 and where Europe's world war officially ended, Jean-Louis Schneiter, the mayor, puts it poignantly: The remembrance, he says, comes "at the very moment when Europe tries to understand itself and wants to affirm itself."
On paper, this new Europe is an unwieldy experiment that some cynics contend has produced a Frankenstein stitched together from parts that don't quite fit.
That has become painfully evident in the year that has passed since fireworks lit up the skies over its cobblestoned capitals and the EU swelled from 15 nations to 25, absorbing a broad swath of the former Soviet bloc.
Countries that once chafed under communism, no longer content with crumbs, now clamor for a thick slice of a meaty capitalist pie. But they can't compete on an equal footing -- not when the average monthly salary is $300 in Lithuania and $2,200 in the Netherlands.
The euro, the single European currency that has replaced francs, lire, marks and escudos, has meshed smoothly into the 10 countries that accepted it. But the newcomer nations won't join the common currency until later this decade, stirring resentment and hand-wringing about a continent moving forward at two speeds.
Now, as the EU contemplates taking in Muslim Turkey and struggles to ratify a divisive new constitution, some wonder whether the continent is morphing into something unrecognizable, perhaps untenable.
A Europe that could barely clothe itself after the war is now riven by endless debate over Muslim head scarves, feeding angst over religious sensibilities and national identities.
A new report from the Vienna-based European Monitoring Center for Racism and Xenophobia captures the acrimony sweeping the continent. Two in three Europeans, it says, believe multiculturalism has reached a breaking point, and many harbor critical views of immigrants.
There is an impulse to blame immigrants when things go wrong.
"I rue the day our grandfathers opened our doors," says Marie-Pierre Larouche, taping over a broken car window outside Reims' main train station and assuming on zero evidence that it was Algerian immigrants who smashed it to steal her CD player.
Equally ominous are surveys that suggest anti-Semitism is on the rise again -- something Europeans believed was banished forever by the memory of the Nazi Holocaust.
Yet in practice, Europe works -- in many ways, better than ever before.
There is unprecedented trade and freedom of movement. Across a superstate of 455 million people, with an economy that rivals NAFTA's, a Czech couple can travel unimpeded to the Straits of Gibraltar, and a Swedish computer company can outsource microchips to a partner in fellow EU member Cyprus.
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