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EU: Changes May Prove Definitive For Policy

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union has a new parliament, a new parliament building, a new executive commission, a new executive commission president, and a new lead official on foreign policy. Our correspondent looks at what these changes suggest about the EU's future.

Prague, 21 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The tower of Babel was never completed. As is known, God became annoyed with the excessive ambition of the builders of this tower, which was meant to reach to heaven. He made them suddenly speak in different tongues, so they could not understand one another.

By contrast, the European Union has managed to complete and inaugurate its grandiose new parliament building in Strasbourg, France, built at a cost of some $400 million. Europe's biggest single building project, the parliament contains more than 1,000 offices, as well as the largest single room in Europe.

The great curved building -- which appears to float above the river at Strasbourg -- will only be used for about 30 days a year, however. That's because parliamentarians have another building in Brussels, a huge silver and glass edifice completed only two years ago at a cost of $1 billion.

In terms of extravagance, the EU appears close to rivaling the builders of Babel, especially since the parliament -- the democratic arm of the EU -- has always been considered the least important of the EU's major institutions. The two separate parliament houses were built through the determination of member states France and Belgium to play host to as many EU institutions as possible, regardless of cost.

In a broader sense, the opening of the new parliament comes at a moment when the EU could either sink into Babel-like confusion or transform itself into a more decisive power in the world.

The Kosovo crisis has stretched the EU's decision-making processes to the limit at a time when it was creaking forward with the thorny task of eastward expansion. There are also severe trade tensions with the United States to worry about, as well as Europe's own weak economic performance. In addition, the EU's Executive Commission -- disgraced by charges of mismanagement -- is practically rudderless, pending the installation of a new commission.

Can Europe cope with all of these pressures?

Steven Everts is a senior analyst at the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank. Everts believes the political and economic stakes are so high that the EU cannot afford to fail:

"The costs of paralysis and stagnation are so great, and will become seen as such across the EU, that more serious internal reforms will be implemented."

The first line of defense against chaos lies with the EU's new reformist Executive Commission, headed by President Romano Prodi. The 19 commission members were formally named by the Council of Ministers this week (July 19) and will be presented to the newly elected parliament today, for approval by autumn.

Although not particularly experienced at the EU level, the new team is meant to be lean, keen and honest, with the goal of cutting through the EU's accumulated inefficiencies. As an accompanying measure, Prodi has also ordered the biggest shakeup of the commission's bureaucratic staff in its 40-year history.

Significantly, a commissioner will be assigned for the first time with sole responsibility for eastward expansion. He is former German Foreign Ministry State Secretary Guenter Verheugen, who has already made clear he intends to keep the expansion process firmly on the tracks already established. He says that -- regardless of the difficulties -- the eastern candidate nations must meet the requirements already set out by the EU. And despite the easterners' impatience -- particularly Poland -- he says no dates for entry can be set yet. But he also says that ways must be found so that no candidate nation feels discouraged or rejected.

Verheugen's appointment shows the importance Prodi places on keeping clear lines on the enlargement issue, particularly in view of surveys among the candidate nations that show waning public support for EU membership.

Analyst Everts says he believes the Kosovo crisis and its aftermath will give the EU enlargement process a major impetus. He sees a new sense of urgency in Brussels and across European capitals:

"Prior to the Balkans crisis, expansion was very much in the future. It was an 'if-and-when' issue. There were some temporizing forces in terms of the vested interests in member states, but broader geopolitical considerations have now overtaken these narrower sectoral interests in the calculations which political leaders are making."

Everts also says he sees key institutional changes within the EU as inevitable. He notes that an Inter-Governmental Conference for this purpose is set to take place early next year, during the Portuguese presidency of the EU. It will be focused on fleshing out such issues as the number of commissioners after enlargement and a new system of voting in the Council of Ministers, which is intended to balance the voting weights of the larger and smaller EU members.

In another key development, outgoing NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana is about to take over the new post of the EU's high representative on foreign and security policy. He will be the one voice speaking for the EU in these fields -- a type of foreign and defense minister in one. He will not merely be speaking but will also actively formulate joint policy based on the common views of member states. This complements Prodi's view of his own job as that of a "prime minister," rather than just a Brussels bureaucrat.

In other words, what is being created in Brussels as a result of all the internal and external pressures is the beginnings of a "super-government," which will increasingly reach beyond economic themes to also speak for member states on political grounds.

That's good news for European integrationists and bad news for those who want the EU to remain a loose federation of still-sovereign states. But it appears to be an inevitable trend if the EU is going to be able to act coherently in an increasingly fractious world.

Reinforcing this move are the steps taken this week by Italy and Britain to push forward plans for an independent EU military capacity, made up of forces dedicated from national armies.

Returning to the European Parliament, long considered the weak link in the chain, it too has gained new powers this year, which will strengthen its role of democratic oversight over what the commissioners are doing. And -- as analyst Everts points out -- the new parliament house in Strasbourg is designed to provide space for deputies from Central and Eastern Europe.

That could be a good omen for the future.