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EU: Leaders Offer Competing Visions Of Union's Future

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union's planned expansion in the East has provoked a profound debate among leaders about what the EU is and how it should develop. The result has been the emergence in recent weeks of competing and often contradictory views on the scope and direction of the Union. RFL/RE correspondent Breffni O'Rourke analyzes the different views recently expressed by three top EU leaders.

Prague, 12 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Some big EU names have come up with some big ideas in recent days. French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and European Commission President Romano Prodi have all been setting forth their visions of how the EU should develop in future.

This renewed top-level soul-searching has largely been provoked by two major challenges facing the Union. One is how to cope with the coming large-scale expansion into Central and Eastern Europe, and the other is how to deal with the internal dynamics created by the EU's single currency, the euro.

Together, those two challenges are forcing a new debate on the basic direction of the EU, and the comments by the three leaders show just how much their competing visions differ.

In a speech in Warsaw on Friday (Oct 6), Tony Blair set out in great detail his view of how the Union should develop. First, he expressed enthusiasm for European cooperation to a degree which is rare for a British leader. He spoke of making Europe a superpower through the projection of collective power.

Blair referred to the EU as a constellation of independent, sovereign nations, which voluntarily pool part of their sovereignty to achieve more together than they could individually.

Few other EU leaders would disagree with those ideas. But Blair went on to propose arrangements for running the Union that in effect would seek to reduce what he sees as the risk that Brussels would ever gather to itself enough power to shape the EU into a centralized federal state.

For instance, he strongly emphasized the role of the Council of Ministers, the EU body of elected national leaders. An increased role for the council would have the effect of concentrating power at the government-to-government level, and could only come at the expense of Prodi's European Commission in Brussels.

Blair's vision no doubt appealed to fellow anti-federalist EU members like Sweden and Denmark. But a few days earlier Prodi had strongly rejected what he called the "worrying" trend toward that supports EU integration based on direct cooperation among member-state governments.

Speaking in Strasbourg to the European Parliament, Prodi underlined what some see as a major fault in the Blair-type model -- its fragmentation of decision-making. Prodi referred to the EU's inability to act effectively in the Balkan conflict, calling that lack of collective action "tragic."

Prodi urged instead a strengthening of the role of the commission and other central EU institutions. He said he is a "passionate" believer that the best way forward is through the present communal system. He also said that he hopes the key reform to emerge from the present EU Inter-Governmental Conference on internal institutional reform is one which strictly limits the veto power each EU member has when it feels its vital interests are at stake.

According to Prodi, scaling down the veto right is a necessary step toward assuring that the Union can still function after it enlarges to the east. For his critics, of course, it is also a step toward what they consider the "federalization" of decision-making.

France's President Jacques Chirac presented yet another vision of the EU's future in a speech in Dresden last week that marked the anniversary of German unification. Chirac held out an olive-branch to the eastern candidates. He said that they need not fear for their future in the Union.

But the main thrust of his remarks was the need for an inner core of member countries, led by France and Germany, to press ahead with deeper integration. Chirac said that other key members of the Union -- namely, Italy, Spain, and Belgium -- were interested in joining this drive for faster integration.

The result would be to create a two-speed Union, incorporating in the inner core those who want to forge ahead with integration and leaving out those unwilling or unprepared to join in. As such, however, it can also be seen as a move to preserve and even enhance the power and influence of large EU member-states at the expense of numerous smaller countries.

With their huge economies and big populations, France and Germany -- joined perhaps by Italy and Spain -- would make up a dominant force within the Union. That would occur even if the EU expands to a prospective 28 members.

The Chirac model cuts across both the Blair and Prodi concepts. Like Blair's plan it would tend to reduce the role of Brussels. But at the same time it would encourage the EU's federalist impulse, if only among those states participating in the inner group.

Whatever the rhetoric of the various leaders, the immediate reality will be shaped by the results of the Inter-Governmental Conference, which is due to conclude its work by December -- just before the EU's summit in Nice. It is the reforms agreed upon at the conference that will form the concrete basis for the next stage of EU development.

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