Brussels in high summer is a good place to ponder the achievements and failures of the experiment in European unification masterminded from the Belgian capital.
A single flash of the maroon passport carried by EU citizens is enough to gain entry to the world's largest economy, an association of 25 countries with a population of 450 million people. With a wallet full of euros, you can travel across the region without having to visit a bank. The World Cup cities of Germany are tantalisingly close.In Brussels, street signs are in four languages: French, Flemish, German and English.But no place on earth has been fought over more than Belgium. Just beyond its capital's southern suburbs lie Waterloo, site of Napoleon's final defeat, and the trench lines of the 1914-18 war.It's impossible to be wholly convinced by the EU. Low growth and persistently high unemployment have stripped the gloss from the European ideal. But there is no doubt it is an improvement on the divisions that preceded the Treaty of Rome, signed 50 years ago next March, which gave birth to the original European Economic Community (EEC).At its heart, the EU is a trade-off between the benefits of being the world's largest free trade area and the sovereignty sacrificed by the independent nations that are its members. For the majority of Europeans, the gains more than offset the losses.The countries of the Arabian peninsula today are around where the core countries of Europe were in 1950 when French politicians Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman unveiled plans for an iron and steel industry partnership with Germany. The divisions between Arab republics and traditional monarchies are as redundant now as the conflict between Germany and the rest was then. Something new is required to address the needs of a new era.Strong growth rates and the consensus that oil prices will remain above $40 a barrel for the foreseeable future represent Arabia's opportunity. The challenge is translating this into things of lasting substance. Monnet and Schuman had a vision of a united Europe where war was rejected and prosperity the principal goal.It was a good one that has been turned into a reality that modern Europeans take for granted.The big question for the Middle East is this: if Europe, divided by nationality, language and religion, could become the EU, why cannot Arabia eventually become the Arabian Union, the AU? Its people speak the same language and the overwhelming majority have the same faith. Their political systems are similar. In 25 years, it could have the sixth largest economy on earth.The GCC, founded 25 years ago this year, was set up essentially to address security concerns. But its principal purpose is economic. In the past five years, important steps have been taken to co-ordinate development. A GCC power grid is being built that will connect Kuwait with Oman along the Gulf coast. It is close to agreeing a free trade agreement with the EU. Their currencies are effectively pegged to each other and currency union is due in 2010.With GCC economies set to grow on average by up to 20 per cent in 2006, the world is coming to terms with a new economic phenomenon. Some now refer to GRIC, the GCC, Russia, India and China, rather than to BRIC, Brazil, Russia, India and China. Persistently high growth is encouraging swifter Gulf economic convergence. GCC stock exchanges, airports and hotels are full of business people from across the region. Just as their European counterparts think nothing of investing in Germany, dining in Paris and going to the opera in Milan in a normal working week, they travel around the capitals of the GCC as if it was already a single entity.Perhaps the AU will emerge automatically because of rising regional trade and investment rather than through a big idea. Perhaps that is