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Monday, July 12, 2004

EU visions go head to head


LONDON -- At the final summit of the Irish presidency of the European Union in Brussels late last month, European heads of government agreed on the text of a European constitution for the enlarged group of 25 states that came into being at the beginning of May. Representatives of the 10 new states were apparently flabbergasted by the acrimony displayed at the final dinner and by the hard bargaining that went on until an agreement was eventually thrashed out.

Personal relations between British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on one hand, and French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, on the other, were reported to have deteriorated badly. Chirac aroused the animosity of the new states by behaving with his accustomed arrogance. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, however, won plaudits for weaving together a last-minute agreement.

It remains to be seen whether the constitution, with its long-winded phraseology based on innumerable compromises, will ever come into force. It must be ratified by all 25 states, and some 10 states have already declared that they will put it to a popular vote.

Britain is one of the states that have opted for a referendum on the constitution. Blair, having declared that a referendum was not necessary for British ratification, suddenly changed his mind in order to put the conservative opposition on the defensive. But the majority of the British electorate, if polls are to be believed, are increasingly disenchanted with the European Union. The government will need to make a major effort in support of the constitution to win a referendum.

In Britain's recent European Parliament elections, the U.K. Independence Party made significant gains. Seeking electoral advantage, the conservative opposition argues that if they win the next election they will renegotiate the terms of British membership in the EU and opt out, for instance, from the common fisheries policy. Informed observers think this approach is unrealistic, but sadly a significant number of British voters retain an insular mentality.

The new constitution is not as bad as some in the press think. It gives new powers to the European Parliament, establishes a charter of fundamental rights and extends majority voting to many areas (although national vetoes remain over fundamental issues such as direct taxation plus foreign and defense policy).

It could be made workable if European leaders show that they want it to work. This means choosing outstanding people to serve as commissioners and members of the European Parliament. Until the constitution has been ratified, the proposed European Council president -- which is to replace the present six-month presidency -- and a European foreign minister cannot be appointed. In any case, the European Commission, on which each member country has the right to representation, will not be limited in size before 2014.

At the summit no agreement could be reached on the nomination of a successor to Romano Prodi as president of the European Commission. The British led the opposition to the French and German proposal to appoint the Belgian prime minister to the job on the grounds that he was too federalist. The French and Germans objected to a British presidency on the grounds that Britain has not adopted the common currency and does not accept the agreement that abolishes frontier controls between member states.

The Irish finally succeeded in getting all member states to accept the appointment of Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Durao Barroso, who is thought to be capable of bridging the Atlanticist approach of the British and Italians with the more inward-looking attitudes of the French and Germans. Some fear, though, that he was chosen because he was the only person left who was acceptable to all.

This may well be unfair, but he will have a tough initiation. Assuming that he wins the necessary endorsement of the European Parliament, he has to ensure that a heterogeneous selection of commissioners can work together and meet the conflicting demands of the member states. The Germans and the French have already made it clear that they expect their commissioners to be given key economic portfolios even though the German economy is hardly a success story and French dirigisme is not appropriate for Europe as a whole -- and has not always been successful even in France.

A key issue for the new Europe is its relations not only with the United States but also with the Muslim world. In particular, the EU must decide whether to open negotiations with Turkey, which seeks membership. During the recent NATO summit in Istanbul, U.S. President George W. Bush called on the EU to admit Turkey. Chirac responded by telling the Americans to mind their own business. The behavior of both presidents was undiplomatic and unhelpful.

The NATO meeting left the alliance in disarray. There is a clear need for more peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially to train the new Iraqi armed forces and police. But opposition to and criticism of the way in which the American occupation of Iraq has been handled is so strong in Europe that even those who see the need for action are unable to get wholehearted NATO backing for the necessary action. The final communique papered over the cracks.

There are no grounds for optimism about the way in which Europe seems to be drifting, but if we look back on the history of the second half of the 20th century, we see that significant changes have been accomplished. The idea of another large-scale war on the European Continent is now unthinkable. The economies of European countries have made huge strides, and the single market, if not perfect, is a major achievement. We cannot expect, nor would many Europeans want, the EU to develop into a United States of Europe in the first half of the 21st century.

It will be a major achievement if, as I sincerely hope, it continues to muddle along and succeeds not only in keeping the peace in the face of terrorist threats but also in improving the economies and livelihood of the peoples of Europe in the face of serious demographic issues.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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