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EU: President Invites Easterners To Join Debate On Their Future

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Foreign Minister Anna Lindh of Sweden, the current president of the European Union, is calling on Eastern candidate countries to contribute to the debate on EU constitutional reform. Speaking in Brussels this week, Lindh said the views of candidates are as important as those of current members on the division of EU powers after enlargement. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke notes that Lindh made her comments after meeting with Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who recently outlined his own vision of the EU's future.

Prague, 1 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The ancient Romans had a saying: "There are as many opinions as there are men." Judged by that standard, Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh's invitation to the European Union's Central and East European candidates to join the debate on the EU's future can only add to the cacophony surrounding an already difficult issue.

But in Sweden's view, the 10 candidates are going to live within the EU and will have to follow its rules. That makes it only fair that they should have a say in the construction of the common European house.

The chief spokesman for the Swedish presidency, Anders Erikson, said in comments to RFE/RL that it's a matter of easterners and westerners building Europe together. He said that to this end, on the practical level, Sweden has arranged two meetings, late this month and in May, to which candidates will be invited and which will focus on the possible future shape of the union.

"I think they [the Eastern candidates] can add new aspects to the discussions on the future of Europe. I know that some of these countries already have many opinions on the EU's Nice Treaty, [which was agreed upon in December,] and I think they would be very happy to be part of this discussion." But Polish political analyst Alexander Smolar has some doubts about how lively the eastern participation might be, in view of what he calls certain "tactical" considerations. Smolar, who chairs the board of the Stefan Batory Foundation, told RFE/RL from Warsaw that his impression is that the candidates will not want to further stir up troubled waters:

"They [that is, the candidate states] are rather avoiding participating in the debate on the problems of major fundamental reforms on the future of the Union, including the problem of a constitution. They are avoiding it to a large extent for tactical reasons, so as not to antagonize some of the member states of the EU, because it is quite obvious that the European Union is divided on the issue of the future and on the issue of the constitution as well." Another inhibiting factor, says Smolar, is that the East Europeans, as outsiders, are often not very well prepared for such a debate on the inner mechanisms of the EU. He notes that their main contact with the union so far has focused on detailed negotiations on adoption of the EU's body of rules -- in other words concentrating on the details rather than on a visionary big picture.

On the other hand, Smolar sees early Eastern participation in the process of European construction as a positive element that will serve to familiarize the west with the east. He says what's needed is a "psychological revolution" among Westerners, who are often suspicious of East Europeans on economic, cultural, and historic grounds -- what he describes as a sort of "barbarians are at the gates" syndrome.

Smolar says present EU members must come to recognize that the Easterners will soon be members and that they are here to stay:

"So they [the Eastern candidates] should start as decisively as possible [on the familiarization process] on all possible levels, tactical and detailed, as well as on the fundamental problems on the future of institutions of [a] united Europe."

One Easterner who has made a brave start is Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who last month (Feb. 5) became the first candidate-country minister to present a vision of the EU's future. In a speech in Berlin, Ilves described what he saw as the "crux of the dilemma" in creating a united Europe in its final form. The dilemma, he said, is how to maintain "the same sense of democratic legitimacy and transparency in European Union decision-making as we are used to within our own countries."

Ilves said that a failure of the individual to feel part of the decision-making process is what underlies a considerable degree of Euro-skepticism in the post-communist world. The Eastern Euro-skeptics, he noted, say: "We were just in one union. Why should we now step into another."

Ilves called for, among other things, the creation of a second chamber in the European Parliament, a senate, that would provide equal representation to all member states. He says that such a body, along with a proportionally elected lower chamber, "is the only way we will maintain the full support of citizens of both large and small countries." At this point, the Roman saying about there being as many opinions as men again is pertinent. That's because Dutch European parliamentarian Bob van den Bos holds an exact opposite view about creating a senate. Bos, a Liberal deputy, recently wrote in the Brussels-based weekly European Voice (Feb. 21) that "yet another body that co-decides is not only completely superfluous, but also could be fatal for the concept of decisiveness in an expanded union."

That difference of opinion could well be a precursor of the difficulties that the EU member states will face in 2004. That's when they are due to hold a constitutional conference to decide on the division of powers in an expanded EU.

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