Economic giant, political dwarf

The European Union will never become a political giant unless it overhauls its cumbersome institutions and hammers out a common foreign and security policy, the attendees of a round-table discussion heard yesterday. Europe’s need to recreate itself as a more coherent whole, the speakers at the conference said, looms all the more urgent in the light of growing US unilateralism, as seen in the Iraq war, and the pending eastward expansion of the community whose membership balloons to 25 from 15 next year. The discussion on «Enlargement and the Convention for the Future of Europe» was hosted at the European Parliament Building in Athens on Monday evening. The event was organized by the Greek Section of the European Movement, the Embassy of the Czech Republic, and the Young European Federalists, a non-aligned youth organization. The EU, it has often been said, is like a bicycle: If it does not keep moving forward, it falls. But in order to keep on going, a sense of destination would be useful. «Europe has to decide where it wants to go. Does it want to be just an economic entity or does it want to become a political entity as well?» Professor Thanos Veremis, member of the board of directors of ELIAMEP (the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy), said in his opening address, setting the scene for the ensuing debate. The EU has long been split between federalists, who advocate further European integration, and anti-federalists or intergovernmentalists who remain deeply skeptical of giving up any of their states’ national sovereignty. «Europe will never become a political power if it only reduces itself to an economic actor,» Marietta Giannakou Koutsikou, a deputy and parliamentary representative of Greece in the Convention, told the conference. Although Europe is an economic giant, she added, in terms of security it is a backwater. After months of bickering, the EU finally launched its military debut in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia at the end of March. This operation will be a test for a much larger task involving Europe’s embryonic rapid reaction force replacing 13,000 NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia next year. The US-led alliance has given the green light for the use of its planning and military assets by the Europeans. Far from having a strong military arm, the EU does not even have a common foreign policy. «The image of Europe in the light of the Iraq crisis has been a disappointing, even an alarming one,» Paraskevas Avgerinos, a deputy and parliamentary representative of Greece in the Convention, admitted. The Iraq war has accentuated the divisions that have long put the brakes on Europe’s common foreign and security policy. Germany and France have strenuously opposed the war in Iraq while the governments of Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands, as well as most of the prospective EU members, have fallen in behind the US campaign. Paradoxically, despite Prague’s backing for Washington’s efforts to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Jan Kohout, foreign minister of the Czech Republic and governmental representative in the Convention, also stressed the need for a strong and autonomous European say on foreign policy and security matters. «The development of a common foreign and security policy is top priority for the Czech Republic,» said the minister of the Czech Republic, a future EU member. «The EU must transcend the contours of the single market and establish itself as an autonomous political entity,» Kohout said, adding that the various members must be glued together with a «comprehensive consensual agreement that will be difficult to dismantle or rewrite.» Constitution is the word The EU is currently drafting a constitution under the chairmanship of former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. The Convention for the Future of Europe aims at making the EU more flexible, effective and transparent, fighting Brussels’s notoriously bureaucratic image. Small European states have rejected Franco-German reform proposals to appoint an EU president every five years and to do away with the current rotating six-month presidency, which they say will be inflexible in an expanded Union. Weaker EU members fear that the abolition of the power-sharing structure will undermine their say in the community. Although Avgerinos admitted that it will be difficult, even absurd, to uphold the rotating presidency status in an enlarged union of 25 members, he fell short of defending the Franco-German ideas. He told the audience that a double-headed presidency «will create competition between different poles and downgrade the role of the Commission,» the EU’s executive body. Instead, Avgerinos suggested an interesting alternative whereby four states hold the presidency for one year, hence allowing the various members to alternate at the EU helm somewhat more frequently than today. Giannakou also emphasized the importance of a constitution in safeguarding Europe’s democratic legitimacy while at the same time revamping the power and institutions of the EU. «The Convention symbolizes the passage from classic diplomacy to politics,» Giannakou said, adding that EU efforts must center on «moving away from ad hoc foreign policy» toward a unified voice from a fully-fledged federal union. «Europe will never be respected in times of crisis unless it acquires a single voice,» she said. Europe, all the speakers agreed, must raise its game and provide the US with a partner it cannot afford to ignore. A strong Europe will be to the benefit of everyone – the US included, even if its delusion of omnipotence prevents it from seeing its true interest. «Great powers must be moderated in their behavior by their partners,» Veremis said. It’s like sitting next to an intoxicated driver. You must calm him because at the end of the day «you’re both in the same car.»