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EU: Debate On Union's Future Continues

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The debate goes on about the future shape of the European Union. In one of the latest inputs into the discussion, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker says the end of the national economy is at hand because of monetary union. But not everybody wants continued closer integration among EU members. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at some of the issues.

Prague, 13 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The holiday month of August is turning out wet and cold in Belgium this year. Brussels, home to the main European Union institutions, has an air of desertion as rain pounds down on the pavements. The executive European Commission is closed for the month, and most of the other institutions are functioning on holiday rosters.

But despite the summer doldrums, debate goes on about where Europe is going, what shape the union should take in future, and particularly on the extent of continued integration among members, including the incoming members from Central and East Europe.

One of the latest contributions to the debate is from Luxembourg's Prime Minister and Finance Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who wrote in a recent newspaper article ("Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung") that the economic policies of the 12 countries in the common currency euro-zone must be "more strongly interlocked."

Juncker, a pro-integrationist, said that means more coordination in structural policies and in key areas like budgets, taxes, and even salaries. As Juncker put it, monetary union "means an end" to the separate national economy.

But not everyone in the union favors continued sweeping EU integration, which brings with it the possible loss of national sovereignty.

Anthony Coughlan, an academic at Dublin's Trinity College, played a leading role in the successful campaign in Ireland to reject the EU's Nice Treaty at a referendum in June. He told RFE/RL that his opposition to continued EU integration is based on the question of democratic legitimacy:

"Fundamentally, [we fear] the diminution of democracy involved, and the reduction of the possibility of citizens influencing the decisions which are taken over their lives, in other words, the transfer of powers from national parliaments, national governments, national courts, and national constitutions, to supra-national bodies that are in principle responsible to nobody."

Coughlan, who heads an anti-integration group called the National Platform, says he does not see this deficit being overcome by internal EU reform. He recalls the days before the Irish Republic's independence, when the British dominated all of Ireland:

"In the 19th century, when [all] Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, we had 100 members out of 600 in the British Parliament at Westminster; we [in the Irish Republic now] have 15 out of some putative 700 or so in the European Parliament, and as you know, there is no likelihood that the European Parliament is going to get powers comparable to national parliaments, and even if they did we would still be in that situation [regarding seat numbers]."

To fellow Irishman Brendan Halligan, the chairman of the Institute of European Affairs, such fears are overdrawn, given the voluntary nature of EU membership. He says it is up to the member states to decide what powers they want to give to the center, and that the union does not take them arbitrarily. He also says the coming eastward enlargement of the EU is fueling tensions:

"There has from the very beginning [of the EU] always been that tension between enlarging -- widening -- the union, and deepening the integration process among existing members. That has been there since the very start 50 years ago. All we can say is that historically, that tension has been very satisfactorily resolved. In fact, by a paradox, it would seem that every time the Union has been enlarged, it has led to the need for it to be deepened in terms of integration."

Halligan acknowledges what he calls a certain "disquiet" among citizens about where the EU is going, saying there is a "comprehension deficit" among people -- meaning the average person is not quite sure what's going on in the Union. He says the confusion has two causes:

"One is that the process of deepening has now got to a point where it has gone beyond the [mere] economic [sphere] -- for instance, there is now the common foreign and security policy. And secondly, there will also be the need, because of enlargement, to reform the institutions. And people have an unease about where exactly [all] this is going to go and what it will look like ultimately."

Halligan says he regards this concern as a healthy sign, saying the union is approaching a "rendezvous" point where there must be profound collective thought over the future forms of EU development. He notes the intensity of the current debate, and he says this will continue until the holding in 2004 of an intergovernmental conference, which is supposed to settle a number of issues relating to division of powers.

Another analyst, Marius Vahl of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, agrees that the man in the street feels remote from what is happening in Brussels. But he says that the coming introduction in January of the new single currency notes and coins will give a boost to the integrationist cause, as people see properly for the first time the new efficiencies produced.

"I think it's going to be very interesting to see the introduction of the euro, and I think [the atmosphere] is going to be very different a year from now, in that this will be the first real, tangible evidence of European integration, that will be felt by the man in the street."

But Vahl too agrees that there is a certain level of disaffection towards the EU, both in present member states and in the Eastern candidates. In light of this, he says:

"To me it does not seem inconceivable that one of [the Baltic states] or maybe other Central and East European candidates could actually say 'no' [to accession] at a referendum."

He says this would not be a problem for the union as a whole, but could be one for the individual candidate countries involved.

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