While America votes, Europe cannot sleep. The to-do list looks like this

By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 10/01/08):

Everyone knows what the United States will be up to this year: electing a new president. But what will Europe be up to? Ratifying an unreadable EU reform treaty that doesn't make much difference? We can do better than that. While America votes, here are three things Europe should focus on in 2008: jobs, Muslims, neighbours.First, jobs. We need more of them, but risk ending up with fewer, as the workers of Asia compete ever more effectively in a global labour market. We need these jobs to combat the social evil of unemployment, to increase wealth and to support our ageing populations. We Europeans have proportionately fewer people in work than America does, and work shorter hours. After taking a break to view the Pyramids with the new love of his life, President Sarkozy has returned to France promising to unleash "the forces of work". His analysis is brutally simple: "We do not work enough while others work more." If more is not to mean worse - longer hours for less wages - then it has to mean smarter: using our knowledge base, spotting the gaps in global markets, engaging those whose talents are currently wasted. Since Europe is to lead the world ecologically, these must also be low-carbon jobs. And all this with a credit crunch, and imported oil at $100 a barrel.

The difference will be made mainly by individual entrepreneurs, companies, trade unions and national governments, with Germany and France remaining pivotal. The EU as such can only help at the margins, or at least not hinder - as it does when it shackles with its social and health and safety over-regulations the very productive forces it helps to unleash with its liberalising single market and competition policies. The Eurocrats of over-regulation should this year take an economic version of the Hippocratic oath: first do no harm. At every turn they should ask: "Is your directive really necessary?" If it isn't, scrap it.

Second, Muslims. As we enter the Islamic new year - according to my diary, 1429 starts today - we must accept that Europe has a special problem with its Muslim populations. We should not kid ourselves that tensions exist only with Muslims. (Two suspected Eta terrorists have just been arrested in the Basque country, accused of the deadly bombing of Madrid airport in 2006.) But for most west European countries, relations with their Muslim inhabitants are the biggest single challenge of diversity.

In Britain, the recent conviction of Sohail Qureshi - a dental technician, originally from Pakistan - on the newly specified charge of preparing for terrorism, to which he pleaded guilty, indicates what we are up against at the extreme. Around such dedicated jihadists there's an inner penumbra of sympathisers, like the so-called "lyrical terrorist", Samina Malik, with whom Qureshi was in email contact about security checks at Heathrow airport, where she worked for the newsagent WH Smith. In a wider penumbra are many young Muslims who feel ambivalent about the society in which they have grown up.

But there is also a rising hysteria about all Muslims, or "Islam", which can be followed in the pages of our tabloid newspapers. And there is the worrying curtailment of civil liberties and free speech, in the name both of fighting terrorism and of multi-cultural "respect". (On the evidence that I have seen reported, it seems to me that it was surely right to convict Qureshi, but Malik should never have been brought to court.) Fortunately, the last year has also produced encouraging developments among British Muslims, with outspoken ex-Islamists leading the way towards an avowedly Islamic acceptance of the basic norms of a free society.

One can find equally contradictory trends in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland. The common features are obvious, but so are the differences. These flow from the diverse traditions of integration, citizenship and national identity in each European nation, but also from the diverse countries that were the original "homeland" of first-generation Muslim migrants, and are now an emotionally confusing "second homeland" for their children and grandchildren. Crudely put: the Germans are lucky to have most of their Muslims trace their roots to a maybe-European country, Turkey; France and Spain are less lucky with the Maghreb; Britain is probably worst off, especially with Pakistan in its present mess. (Qureshi was arrested while trying to board a flight to Pakistan.)

If the complexions of the problem are different from nation to nation, the solutions will be national, too. The French, German or British answers will have core liberal elements in common, but people will come to feel at home in Europe because they come to feel French, German or British as well as Muslim (or post-Muslim, or ex-Muslim), not because they leap to feeling European. As with the challenge of creating more European jobs, so with that of creating Muslim European citizens, the EU as such can only help at the margins.

That's not true of the third priority: neighbours. Here the EU as such could play a decisive role. At the moment, the world's largest trading bloc punches far below its weight. It's an economic giant and a political dwarf. The citizens of the established and rising great powers of this world, Americans, Chinese, Russians, Indians, have difficulty concealing their contempt for the EU as a political actor - assuming they have even heard of it, which many have not.

There are three circles of potential EU influence. Innermost is the circle of enlargement. The EU's biggest asset has been its power to make neighbours members. That has sustained peaceful regime change in country after country, from Spain in the 1970s to Croatia today. It is a power that no other power possesses. Fifty years ago, the United States had 48 member states and the newly formed European Economic Community had six. Today, the US has 50 (Alaska and Hawaii joined in 1959, in the last round of US-enlargement) while the EU has 27. One of the new ones is called Slovenia, a state that did not even exist 20 years ago, and it has just taken over the EU's rotating presidency. Now it wants to speed up an EU association agreement with Serbia, its former adversary inside former Yugoslavia. We should support it, and keep the rest of the Balkans, Turkey and Ukraine on track for eventual membership.

The second circle is that of geographical neighbours who are never likely to be members: a vast arc of conflict-ridden, largely undemocratic states, many of them Muslim, stretching from Marrakech to Murmansk. Toward these neighbours, the EU has a policy only in name, not in reality. By the end of this year, we need the reality. The third circle is that of the great powers of this new multi-polar world, global neighbours in a broader sense, among whom the EU should by rights play a prominent part, but at present is barely recognised. A start should be made this year.

Of course we could list many other vital areas, from climate change to development. But if the EU makes some progress on these three - jobs, Muslims, neighbours - then, come January 2009, European leaders will be able to look the new American president in the face, and they will have something to bring to the table.