Time for another European experiment

Though many think of it as a remote bureaucracy par excellence, the European Union is also surprisingly well accustomed to tinkering with itself. After all, the 15-member union has not only grown larger but has transformed its own role at various junctures throughout its 45-year life, which began as an economic community of just six members. Last week it embarked on yet another wide-ranging effort to rethink its inner goals and outer expression, in what is rather grandly designated as the Convention on the Future of Europe. Philadelphia of 1787 it may not be, but meaningful it undoubtedly is. The Convention has been a long time in coming, and the demand for it increasingly evident since the path-breaking Maastricht Treaty was signed in December 1991. After a decade of growing criticism for its remoteness from European citizens, its so-called democratic deficit, and its flagging political profile on the world stage, the EU is finally making an effort to rethink and position itself for the future. For despite a half-century of change, the EU resembles the middle-ager who insists on putting him- or herself into the same, unflattering and unyielding bathing suit each year. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed; its altered context and expanding functions have been packed onto the old, creaking structures. Why now? Therefore, it is high time for a rethink, but any great gathering is also a response to specific circumstances. The EU has just completed a major experiment, introducing the euro, which carries major political and constitutional implications, in terms of shifting economic power from the member states to Europe, which have not yet been fully addressed. Second, it will soon embark on another, its biggest-ever expansion, taking it from 15 members to 25 or more by mid-decade. Most substantial EU changes in the past have resulted via either immediate or imminent pressures; there are few things like deadlines to focus the mind. In this case, the challenge of enlargement has increased fears that the old institutional framework will become hopelessly deadlocked, although this fear also accompanied past enlargements without the sky falling in. And if the prospect of unworkability has necessitated this effort at some point, the September 11 attacks forced a sense of immediacy, with the Europeans feeling acute pressure to conform to changed US priorities in world affairs but also sensing the inadequacy of their own structures and functions and its collective economic strength far outstripping its political identity. The European Rapid Reaction Force, now officially in operation but in practice still non-operative and contentious, is one recent case in point. Further, the underlying political basis, the «European bargain» on which the EU has long functioned, is now shifting. It has long rested on a compromise between French and German interests and a degree of willingness from others to follow. But Gerhard Schroeder’s Germany is taking a markedly less pro-European line, Tony Blair’s Britain is emerging as a new German ally, and France seems less certain that its interests inevitably coincide with Europe’s. Few of the old certainties remain so. Keeping expectations realistic This is not just another regular EU summit, nor another intergovernmental conference of the type that preceded the Maastricht, Amsterdam or Nice treaties. It involves a collective reflection on deeper questions; about identity, about purpose, and about roles. The EU is a hybrid, neither an international organization nor another type of state or superstate. Its identity is not only indeterminate, it is sui generis, and probably impossible to duplicate. This is both a strength and a weakness, for there are no real models to follow, and its members are old and well-established states. They are not exactly starting from scratch here, but trying to improve what has already been started. The Convention president, 76-year-old former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, has asserted that a key aim is to establish the basis for creating a single constitutional document for Europe. Even so, this idea has many detractors: euroskeptics who fear «federalist creep» or a top-down imposition of new rules, regulations, and principles; smaller countries like Denmark, who fear great-power directorates; or many in Britain, whose constitutional basis is derived from law by precedent, not from a single written document, and who certainly don’t want one written in Brussels. Given all this, the summit is highly unlikely to produce a single constitution for Europe, or to suddenly forge a single political unity to bestride the world alongside the USA. There are differences over whether a single constitution is even a viable aim, while a strong political identity will need decades to develop organically. Identities cannot be legislated; Europeans did not feel more «European» just because the Maastricht treaty designated them «citizens of Europe.» At most, it will produce a very general statement concerning European citizens’ rights, and perhaps further efforts to harmonize existing national constitutions. But creating a better sense of cohesion and giving it a more meaningful profile among Europeans themselves seem two worthy goals. While a genuine European constitution seems beyond reach, substantive reform of the EU’s institutions is far more likely. Three mooted changes have concerned the EU presidency, the Council of Ministers, and the Commission. The first has been singled out by Giscard as especially ripe for change. The presidency now rotates every six months among its members, with Luxembourg spending as much time in the driver’s seat as Germany and France. Apart from representing exaggerated equality, this system hinders any sense of continuity in leadership. The Council of Ministers is another frequent target of criticism; though loosely regarded as the «legislative» branch of the EU, it does not operate publicly and its minutes are not published. Because of this lack of transparency, many Europeans believe, with good reason, they are subject to new laws without having a say in their making. Making the Council more open and accountable would vastly help in that regard. A third, often mooted idea is to streamline the executive Commission, currently with 20 members. By the current formula, the big countries have two commissioners and the others one; the right of each state to appoint its own commissioner has long been unassailable. For this reason it is also an acutely sensitive question, particularly for the smaller countries and ones aspiring to join. It is unlikely that any far-reaching EU reform effort could avoid this subject altogether; and if it is addressed, the smaller states will find themselves fighting a major turf battle. The Greek role Long gone are the days of Greek obstructionism at such gatherings. In remarks to Kathimerini last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Tassos Yiannitsis made clear that Greece favors a Europe closer to the tighter, federal model than a looser organization. Yet there would be distinct potential disadvantages for the country in favoring federalist reforms that could undercut its own standing as, in his words, «an equal player in Europe.» The trade-off between a loose and a tight structure in Europe is not just semantic, or something important to others, but could have great practical implications for the country and its own national objectives. For many reasons the convention is a genuinely important occasion, warranting time spent wading through the jargon to get to the heart of such issues with long-term implications.

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