What future for European integration?
Deputy Director of the Centre for European Reform in London.
Enlargement will raise new challenges that invite EU countries to work together more closely on issues ranging from economic policy co-ordination to internal security to environmental degradation. However, although the scope of European integration is likely to stretch over more policy fields, it may develop in non-traditional ways, for example through the 'open method of co-ordination' involving benchmarking and peer pressure that is already used for economic reform. At 25-plus members, the Union will have to return to the question of flexible integration, as some member-states will become frustrated with the slow progress of the Union as a whole, for example on defence policy.
The new members will bring in further problems, but enlargement will also provide new opportunities for co-operation to improve the lives of Europeans. The new members will add their own ambitions to the EU's agenda. For example, several of them want the EU to strengthen its 'neighbourhood policy' for the countries lying to its east and south. If the EU can respond adequately to these challenges, eastward enlargement could take European integration into new fields.
How will the enlarged EU function?
When European integration began in the 1950s, the politicians and officials of the original six members knew each other well. The meetings of their prime ministers were the size of a small dinner party. Even at nine, after the UK, Ireland and Denmark joined, cabinet ministers knew their counterparts in all of the other countries personally. Once the membership reached 12, more formality was needed at meetings to ensure that every country had its fair say. The shift to 15 meant that the member-states know each other less well, and their concerns are more geographically spread out, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. But the country representatives can still fit comfortably around a table, and look each other in the eye when they speak at meetings.
At 25, meetings in the Council will have a new dynamic. The system of tours de table whereby each member-state's representative states his or her country's position could take a whole day, so the EU is introducing new limits on how long each person can speak for. For efficiency's sake, silence will be taken as acquiescence, which could encourage noisier and possibly more confrontational meetings. The relationships between the member-states will change too, because their politicians and diplomats cannot possibly build up close personal friendships with their counterparts from all other 24 countries. EU meetings will resemble international conferences rather than the cosy club of the 1960s.
The new table for European Council meetings in Brussels seats 52 people. It is so big that not everyone at the table will be able to see the person who is talking. And the complexities of two-way interpretation between all the new languages of the Union will make debates more formal and rather humourless. With 20 official languages, many translated via English rather than directly from the speaker's native tongue, discussion will inevitably slow down and lose colour and vibrancy. Bonhomie and personal relationships the grease that often keeps negotiations going will suffer as a result. But, for all these difficulties, the Union is unlikely to grind to a halt. The institutions will be put under strain, but they will probably cope. The EU's political system is not very good at anticipating problems, but it has often shown itself to be adept at muddling through and eventually implementing the reforms that are needed to keep the Union going.
Views on European integration
The new members took a crash course in European integration through their participation in the 'Convention on the Future of Europe' that discussed institutional reforms between February 2002 and July 2003. For the first time, the members-to-be were invited to take part fully in an EU forum. They sent government representatives and parliamentarians to the Convention, while their NGOs and policy institutes were actively involved in the surrounding debates. The Convention inspired journalists, think-tanks and parliamentarians in the region to examine their countries' interests in more detail. The IGC which followed the Convention mobilised political opposition to several aspects of EU integration.
The inclusion of the new members in the Convention was welcome, but it was also rather strange as a first experience of EU policy-making. Since Central and East European politicians and officials had not gained any first-hand experience of EU decision-making from the inside, their positions on institutional reform were by necessity abstract and uncertain. Moreover, the Convention mostly took place at a time when the accession negotiations were still in full swing, making the candidate countries unwilling to take firm positions that could alienate one or other of their EU partners.
However, towards the end of the Convention, the representatives from the members-to-be became more vocal and the newcomers started to form alliances with the existing member-states. All the newcomers except Poland signed a letter organised by the small EU member-states which objected to the creation of a permanent president for the European Council. But the new members are unlikely to be as federalist as the Benelux countries and Germany traditionally have been. The political elites in Central Europe are not ideologically committed to the 'Community method' of decision-making whereby the Commission initiates legislation, and the Council and European Parliament decide on it. Rather, Central and East European politicians tend to consider pragmatically what is the best way of developing a policy. For example, they are generally in favour of the 'Lisbon process' for economic reform that does not work through the Community method which is the reason why many federalists dislike it.
Many policy-makers in Central Europe started changing their views on the Commission during the course of the Convention. During the accession negotiations, the new members saw the Commission's hard face, when it was the body on the other side of the table making demands and telling them what to do. Now they have come to see the Commission's utility as the guardian of the treaties, particularly in creating a level playing-field in the single market, and as a defender of the interests of small countries. For example, the new members resented Commission criticism of their inward investment incentives and state aids, most of which they were obliged to abolish before joining the EU. But now many policy-makers in the region want the Commission to enforce competition rules strictly, because the richer old member-states can afford bigger hand-outs to companies.
The new member-states are generally opposed to moves that would allow the large countries especially the UK and France to dominate EU decision-making on foreign policy and defence. They are wary of inter-governmentalism where the member-states agree among themselves rather than working with the EU's institutions in areas where it might diminish the status of small countries. All of the new members want to have a commissioner with full voting rights. However, there is a contradiction between their wish to have a strong, effective Commission, and their desire for every member-state to have its own full commissioner, which will weaken the body by making it less cohesive.
By the time of the IGC in autumn 2003, Poland was showing clear differences from the views of the other newcomers. Poland is keen to pursue projects with other medium-sized and large states, whereas the smaller newcomers would prefer to enhance the role of the EU's institutions. And the Warsaw government decided to hold out firmly against a proposed change in the voting system for the Council of Ministers. The existing system established under the Nice treaty gives Poland nearly as many votes as Germany, although it only has half as many people. By contrast, the 'double majority' system backed by the Berlin and Paris governments would more accurately reflect population size, and so Poland would lose voting power relative to the biggest countries. The issue has excited press comment and public discussion in Poland, and revived fears about Germany dominating Europe. To many Poles, the voting system has become a critical test of whether they will have equal status with Germany and other 'great powers' in Europe. Yet the smaller accession countries were reasonably happy to accept the double-majority system, despite the fact that it will reduce their relative weight in the Council of Ministers.
The December 2003 European Council confirmed that co-operation among the newcomers is unlikely to strengthen. They failed to present a common front, despite the new members' attempts to form a coalition. The Czech and Slovak governments decided not to stand behind Poland on voting weights, while Hungary's support depended on Poland agreeing to help Budapest put a clause in the constitution on the rights of minorities.
Will a 'core Europe' emerge to run the enlarged Union?
The collapse of the constitutional talks at the December 2003 summit gave renewed impetus to the idea of a two-tier Union. Many French and some German politicians are keen to create a 'hard core' of member-states which are committed to further integration. There are many obstacles to the creation of such a core, not least the problems that France and Germany have in agreeing policy stances between themselves. But talk of such a differentiated EU worries the new members because they would be greatly disadvantaged if they finally managed to join the EU only to find that they were excluded from a core decision-making group.
After the IGC collapsed in December 2003, French President Jacques Chirac called for a concrete plan to create a core group. He suggested that the other four founding members of the EU ally themselves with France and Germany and work on common projects. But fewer and fewer issues unite these six countries, and the leaders of Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands rapidly dissociated themselves from the idea of a hard core. Belgium seems to be the only enthusiast, which would hardly create a cohesive group that could lead the Union. The motivations of Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and their ability to succeed are both questionable. The formation of a hard core would be dangerous for Europe and counter-productive for its members, particularly Germany. It would be dangerous because the current conception is essentially divisive: the aim is not so much to show the way for other member-states as to leave the laggards behind.1
The new members have greeted Franco-German plans for a 'core Europe' with great alarm and suspicion. The idea smacks of exclusion. The Central and East Europeans have worked very hard to meet all the conditions to join the EU as full members. They do not want to join and then discover that France and Germany have retreated to an inner sanctum from which they are barred. Yet this is exactly what many French advocates of 'core Europe' have in mind: to isolate the current EU from the impact of enlargement by creating a union within the Union.
The new members hate the idea that important decisions might be taken by a huddle of the big countries and imposed upon the rest. They dread a directoire emerging which could bully the others into submission. Many tragedies of Central and East European history have resulted from decisions made by great powers outside the region. Politicians in the region thus want to be fully involved in the EU's decision-making, on equal terms with the other countries.
France has wasted its stock of goodwill with the new members. Just after the 1989 revolutions, there was widespread Francophilia in Central Europe, thanks to the dissidents who had spent time in Paris, and to the French-speaking intellectuals in Warsaw, Prague, Bucharest and Sofia. That cultural admiration has been tainted by mistrust and anger at the arrogant behaviour of France's politicians, and the country's lukewarm attitude towards enlargement.
The reluctance of French leaders such as François Mitterrand and Edouard Balladur to agree to eastward enlargement in the early 1990s has not been forgotten. Then at the Nice summit in 2000 which decided the numbers of votes in the Council and seats in the European Parliament to be allocated to the new members (Chirac said in a closed session that: "It is legitimate that old member-states, who have contributed so much, should have more votes than those who are new and will bring problems."2 In February 2003, President Chirac told the then candidate countries to shut up about Iraq. His insults worked in the short term because the Central and East European leaders were afraid of jeopardising their accession prospects. But that humiliation will cost France dearly in the longer term because it has alienated potential allies.
Even more shocking for the new members than France's behaviour is the change in Germany's approach in recent years. From the founding of the Union, Germany always sought to be the friend of the small countries, taking their interests into account and seeking a federal solution that would defend them against France's inter-governmentalist tendencies. With the Central and East Europeans too, Germany sought strong ties and good relations, based on a long tradition that started with Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik in the early 1970s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany assiduously built up strong relationships with the would-be eastern members, championing enlargement and seeking strong government-to-government links. Germany has signed reconciliation agreements with its eastern neighbours, the Czech Republic and Poland, to try to resolve post-war bilateral problems. And the German government has encouraged and financed initiatives to promote non-governmental links with schools, churches and charities in the eastern countries.
For Germany, the perils of forming a hard core that alienates the new members are greater than they are for France. Over the past year, Berlin has squandered much of the political capital it built up in Central and Eastern Europe over the past decade. Germany's pursuit of reconciliation and closer ties with its eastern neighbours has become subservient to the alliance with France. In the fight over voting weights that brought down the EU's proposed new constitution, Germany's relations with Poland which were so good in the 1990s reached a new low. Many Poles saw Germany as using its greater size to force its will upon them. This was an overreaction, but it is understandable after the insults and heavy-handed tactics of the past year from Paris and Berlin.
Many German officials privately admit to misgivings about the idea of core Europe. As Chancellor Schröder said at the December 2003 summit, the idea is a second-best solution, not Germany's first choice. But he saw it as a logical move if the draft constitution failed and enlargement paralysed the Union. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer advocated the formation of an 'avant-garde' to lead the Union in 2000. But he recently acknowledged that "… enhanced co-operation will hardly ever involve a core Europe anymore because most of the member-states will invariably want to participate. Not all of them will be able to, and a very few will not want to. But it will almost always be majorities that are involved, not small groups of states."3
The enlarged EU will have to find new methods of leadership. There are alternatives, however, to the formation of a core of self-appointed leader-countries. As discussed below, the Union can keep going through shifting coalitions that pursue particular initiatives. There is nothing wrong with bilateral alliances and co-operation between groups of countries that want to pursue one project or another. Such enhanced co-operation whether within or outside the framework of the treaties will become increasingly common in the Union of 25. But these coalitions have to be based on policies, not on particular countries. What is dangerous is the idea of a permanent, exclusive hard core.
A Union of shifting coalitions
Until the early 1990s, the Franco-German relationship was both the necessary and sufficient condition for any EU initiative to move ahead. Other groupings were influential too, particularly the Benelux group of small countries and the southern states bordering the Mediterranean. But agreement between Germany and France was the essential glue, because these two countries represented the main divisions in the Union between North and South, East and West, industrial and agricultural, federalist and inter-governmentalist. A deal between them often led to a compromise between the Union's other competing interests.
But French and German views no longer represent the main dividing-lines in the EU. The divisions between big and small countries are more important now, and after enlargement the EU will have 19 small countries and only six large ones. On many policy areas, there is a growing consensus among the 25 countries. Most member-states now have small agricultural sectors. Most support liberal economic and trade policies. An agreement between Berlin and Paris is no longer guaranteed to ensure that the rest of the EU will agree as the December 2003 summit showed. After enlargement, a Franco-German compact may not even be necessary for an initiative to proceed, if it is led by a determined group of other countries.
The Franco-German partnership will still matter, but the member-states will co-operate in many other new alliances as well. Poland will stand with Britain in opposing tax harmonisation, for example, but it will support Spain against London in demanding EU funds for poor regions. Estonia is strongly against subsidies of any kind and will favour reform of EU agricultural policy, along with the Czech Republic and possibly Hungary. But Estonia will have similar interests to the Danes and other small countries in wanting Europe to protect its minority language films and television. Although leadership in the EU will have to come from coalitions of the willing, not a permanent, hard core, there are still some major questions about how the shifting alliances will work. For example, will they be only fair-weather alliances? If they are based on short-term interests, these coalitions may not survive when times are hard and tough decisions have to be taken.
Strong leadership will be especially important if the EU is to make further progress in the key areas of the Lisbon agenda, reform of the budget, completion of the single market, more effective economic management of the eurozone, border controls and external policy. But no prime minister likes to be the one to propose unpopular measures, so EU leaders could all duck the hard choices.
Although short-term alliances are probably the only way forward for European integration, they also carry dangers. In particular, coalitions of the willing will not necessarily help to reconcile major differences between the member-states. If the 25 members really cannot agree on an issue, there are few mechanisms left to force them to do so and so they will remain divided.
Viscount Palmerston, a British prime minister of the mid-19th century, said that "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and those interests it is our duty to follow." This attitude has cost Britain dear throughout its EU membership, while other countries were much better at dressing up their ambitions in the language of solidarity, even if their pursuit of interests was as assiduous. If everyone behaves like Britain at its most awkward, the EU will become more of a negotiating forum and less of a union of states.
With more than two-dozen members, the EU will have less of a sense of direction and common purpose. In turn, its internal debates could see more bitter fights, as countries lose the last vestiges of the ésprit communautaire. Feelings of solidarity tend to diminish as communities become larger and more diverse, and this happens in communities of states as well as of individuals.
From the book:
The Constellations of Europe. How enlargement will transform the EU, published by the Centre of European Reform,
1 See Heather Grabbe and Ulrike Guérot, 'Could a hard core lead the enlarged EU?', CER, February 2004.
2 The Economist, December 14th 2000.
3 'The reconstruction of the West', Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 6th 2004.
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