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EU: Prodi, Jospin Join Debate On European Union's Future

  • Ahto Lobjakas

At their summit in Nice five months ago, European Union leaders gave themselves until late 2004 to agree on how best to divide responsibilities between the federal and nation-state levels. Although the deadline is still relatively distant, the debate is already heating up over the EU's future institutional framework. On 28 May, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin put forward his views. Yesterday (29 May), the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, unveiled his vision as well. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas takes a closer look at the debate.

Brussels, 30 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The debate over the European Union's constitutional future falls into two opposing courts: those who support federalism and those who prefer so-called "intergovernmentalism."

The federalists, led by Germany and Belgium, would like to see the EU eventually evolve into a state-like entity, with a parliament, government, and perhaps a president.

The intergovernmentalists, represented foremost by Britain and France, reject excessive curbs on national sovereignty, although most of them are ready to contemplate pooling leadership in particular areas.

Ideological platforms and national self-interest all contribute to what French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin on 28 May referred to as the "constitutive tension" between nation-states and EU-wide cooperation. In a speech to students and European journalists, the Socialist premier outlined his vision of the EU's future:

"I do not separate France from the rest of Europe. Like so many other people committed to Europe, I want Europe. Still, I am attached to my nation. Making Europe, without unmaking France or any other European nation, that is my political choice."

The majority of EU member states today, including France, are run by left or center-left governments. They favor what some have termed the "European model" -- an arrangement that combines economic prosperity with an emphasis on social progress and solidarity in general. Many governments say this model should form the backbone of further integration, be enshrined in a future constitution, and be projected outward as part of the EU's global message.

National self-interest tends to manifest itself most in financial considerations. For example, the strongly federalist Germany supports a partial "re-nationalization" of costly EU development aid and agricultural subsidies. This idea has met with resistance from less federalist nations like France, which is the biggest beneficiary of EU farm subsidies.

As president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi represents the EU's central executive arm. In his speech yesterday on the EU's future, also delivered in Paris, Prodi described himself as neither federalist nor intergovernmentalist.

This did necessarily mean, however, that Prodi tried to remain neutral. Like all other participants in the debate, the Commission has a vested interest in its outcome. And Prodi's speech -- billed as a key contribution to the debate -- put forward three proposals for institutional reform that were all geared toward increasing the Commission's powers.

The most daring of the proposals envisages the introduction of an EU-wide tax to finance the community budget. Currently, the EU budget is derived from a share of some member-state taxes as well as from direct contributions. According to Prodi, an EU tax would provide the community institutions with their own resources, while at the same time enhancing their autonomy.

Prodi also suggested that the EU representative for foreign and security policy should become a member of the Commission. Javier Solana, who currently holds the post, bypasses the Commission and reports directly to member-state governments.

Finally, Prodi said the Commission should be given wider powers and become the EU's economic government, alongside the European Central Bank.

Prodi's speech appeared largely to ignore Jospin's call on 28 May for the EU constitutional debate to deal with the substance, rather than the form, of its future course. Yet what attracted most media attention in Jospin's remarks were the intricacies of institutional reform -- the nuts and bolts that will have to form the core of any consensus in 2004. This is where the divide between federalism and intergovernmentalism manifests itself most clearly.

At the institutional level, the main controversy centers on the relationship between the powerful, but somewhat opaque, EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

The Council of Ministers, with its permanent secretariat in Brussels, is where most decisions are made in the EU, subject to certain "co-decision" powers recently ceded to the European Parliament.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder suggested earlier this month that the Council become the upper chamber of a future fully fledged parliament. The parliament would elect an EU-wide government with ultimately sovereign powers over foreign policy, defense, the economy, and internal affairs.

On 28 May, Jospin explicitly rejected this blueprint, which he said would relegate EU members to the status of German states (Laender) in a federal super-state. Instead he urged what he called a "federation of nation-states" in which a council of ministers representing national governments would retain ultimate control over EU decisions. The phrase "federation of nation-states" was first uttered publicly in 1996 by former Commission President and former French Socialist minister Jacques Delors. It was later echoed by France's conservative president, Jacques Chirac.

As Jospin sees it, the European Parliament, through its limited co-decision powers, would lend the Council's powers EU-wide legitimacy. Jospin even backed strengthening the Council by empowering it to dissolve the parliament in case a protracted political deadlock developed.