Is Europe coming unglued? Glance at some recent headlines, and it seems that way. A proposed European Union constitution risks being scuttled by disgruntled voters in France and the Netherlands. The growth and stability pact underpinning the euro currency has been watered down. And the pan-European aerospace giant, the European Aeronautics Defense & Space Co., is embroiled in a leadership squabble between French and German interests.
It's not a pretty sight. But while those frictions dominate the news, Europe's unification process continues apace. That's evident in BusinessWeek's 2005 Stars of Europe. The men and women we have chosen -- in fields ranging from corporate management and politics to science and law -- are dynamic, successful, even heroic. But in many cases they also embody the value of transnational cooperation and openness.
Look at Jean-Pierre Lebreton, head of the European Space Agency's Cassini-Huygens Project, which landed a probe on Titan, one of Saturn's moons. The mission has generated breathtaking visual images and streams of scientific data, reminding the world that, when it comes to technological prowess, Europe can compete with the best. It never would have happened, though, without the efforts of Lebreton's multinational team of scientists, who worked on the project for nearly two decades.
Cooperation in politics is bearing fruit as well. Ukraine's November, 2004, Orange Revolution gained crucial backing from Poland and Germany, which leaned on the former government to hold new elections that were won by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. Now the charismatic Yushchenko is promoting European-style democratic reforms in the former Soviet republic. And he's making common cause with Poland and other new EU members, as he pushes for EU membership for Ukraine.
While it's fashionable to gripe about the growth of European bureaucracies, some of Europe's new institutions are widely respected. One is the Luxembourg-based Court of First Instance, where President Bo Vesterdorf is shaping policies on competition and intellectual property that affect not only European companies but global giants such as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT).
No question, some Europeans still cling to national barriers that historically protected them from competition. A tangle of country-by-country regulations still makes it difficult for, say, a German to open a bank account in the Netherlands or for a Spaniard to invest in a French mutual fund. But more and more capital is flowing across borders, despite the efforts of entrenched interests. Thomas Krenz, who heads the German unit of London-based private equity outfit Permira, is one of a legion of specialists hunting for deals in Corporate Europe on behalf of private equity investors. Indeed, private equity groups sealed $159 billion in European buyout deals during 2004, exceeding the U.S. total for the first time. Far from being passive investors, they're bringing much-needed restructuring to many Old World companies.
Once-parochial European companies are opening their doors to cross-border talent, too. BT Group PLC, the former British telephone monopoly, now has a Dutch-born chief executive, Ben Verwaayen. Over the past three years he has restored BT's financial health while moving it to the forefront of major European telcos switching to broadband technology. Verwaayen is hardly a token foreigner at BT. Seventeen nationalities are represented among the company's 100 top managers.
While some European politicians still dream about creating "national champions," the region is giving birth to businesses that defy geographic labeling. How, for example, to categorize Skype Technologies, the startup that's bringing Internet phone calling to the masses? Founded by Swedish-born Niklas Zennstr?m and his Danish partner Janus Friis, Skype has its headquarters in London. But most of its programmers and other technical specialists are based in Tallinn, Estonia. That's the kind of cross-border ease that will really bind Europe together.
By Carol Matlack in Paris, with bureau reports