On Oct. 2, one of the year's most important stories passed by with little notice in the United States: Irish voters supported ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon in a referendum that cleared the last major obstacle to a substantial overhaul of European Union institutions. The vote and the coming changes were paid little mind in the States primarily because EU institutional reform is, admittedly, a boring subject. I was in Europe at the time, and even Europeans -- even Europeans working in foreign ministries -- didn't seem very interested in the news. Nevertheless, the continuing process by which the EU gets both larger and more united is among the fundamental factors shaping the future of world politics -- arguably even to a greater extent than economic growth in China and India.

For all the talk about rapid growth in the developing world's mega-states, Europe remains far richer. China and Japan both have gross domestic products hovering a bit below $5 trillion. The USA is a far larger economy at $14.4 trillion. But the EU, were it a country, would easily take the cake as the world's dominant economy with an annual output of over $18 trillion.

But of course, the EU is not a country. It's a strange sort of supra-national entity. In those areas where Europe operates as a unified actor -- most notably on trade policy -- it's already a superpower. In areas where it acts as a continent full of small and medium-sized countries -- most notably on defense policy -- it's, well, a collection of small and medium-sized countries. Occasionally, it's something in between.

Mostly, though, the EU operates as something like the superpower that wasn't there. It's giant and could be extremely powerful, but it lacks the institutional setup to really act in a decisive way and count on the world stage. The Lisbon Treaty is the descendant of an effort made five years ago to rectify this problem by writing a European constitution that would have given the EU many of the trappings of a state, up to and including "Ode to Joy" as an anthem. The document required ratification through a series of referenda, however, and ran into trouble when prospects looked bleak in Ireland, Denmark, and the U.K. and when voters in France and the Netherlands rejected it outright.

The failure of this treaty led to a "period of reflection" followed by the production of a new, less ambitious draft -- the Treaty of Lisbon. While the proposed constitution was deliberately portentous, Lisbon made every effort to look and feel low-key and technical, the better to avoid alarming the public. Still, it makes similar key institutional changes to those proposed in the constitution. The European Parliament will be given additional powers, which may make European voters more inclined to pay attention to the next Europarliament campaign and give the EU more democratic legitimacy. Across an array of issues, the so-called Council of Europe, the intergovernmental body at which most EU decisions are made, will be allowed to make decisions by a supermajority vote rather than requiring unanimity. Two new jobs will be created, one a permanent president of the Council of Europe who can be the public face of the EU. The second will be a kind of EU foreign minister who will oversee a new foreign service along with the Union's substantial foreign aid budget.

This won't produce a revolution in international affairs, but it is an important evolutionary step. And more to the point, it's an evolutionary step in what's now quite a long chain of steps. The European project -- which seeks to weld a war-torn continent into a unified entity over time -- is probably liberal humanism's most ambitious political proposal ever, and it's always had its doubters. But despite various hiccups, including the rejection of the constitution, it keeps moving forward. And it seems likely to continue doing so in the future. Every step toward integration means that the next generation will grow up accustomed to the idea of a political union and further inclined to support measures to streamline it. The growth of the English language as a near-universal second tongue for educated Europeans gives further bones to continental unity.

For now, Europe's still not nearly ready to take the stage as a traditional great power. In Denmark last week, Climate and Energy Minister Connie Hedegaard emphasized to me her hope that Barack Obama would lead the world toward a carbon-emissions agreement -- the idea of a European politician exercising that kind of leadership role wasn't on the table, even though, objectively speaking, it's Europe that's been leading on sustainable growth. Over time, however, that should change. Europe already has the economic mass to deal with the United States as an equal, and it's building the institutional tools to do so as well. The day when it actually happens may yet be a ways off, but Europe's ascendancy is coming and in many respects likely to arrive sooner than the much-hyped rise of China.

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