A mini-summit of key European leaders organized by British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the weekend and one held earlier by French President Jacques Chirac illustrate an important new way of working within the European Union. The summits -- which dealt with international terror -- can be seen as an example of "enhanced cooperation." That's a concept in which a group of nations moves ahead on a particular topic without the other members. This method of operation may become commonplace once the EU expands eastward, but at the moment it's encountering resistance from smaller EU members that feel left out.
Prague, 5 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The concept of "enhanced cooperation" within the European Union is something that is likely to grow in importance as the EU expands into Central and Eastern Europe in a few years' time. The term describes a situation in which a group of member states decides to forge ahead on a European-level issue, while other EU members choose not to become involved.
The concept is not new; the euro common currency project -- in which 12 of the 15 member states are participating -- is an example of successful enhanced cooperation.
But as the EU expands eastward to include eventually 27 or more members, the conventional wisdom is that enhanced cooperation will become more important because of the wide diversity of interests and differing priorities of the members. Waiting for every member to come "on board" in support of any single policy will be even slower than it is now. Therefore -- the idea goes -- those members who want to prioritize a given issue should be allowed to forge ahead on their own.
Cynics, or perhaps realists, would say that a motive for enhanced cooperation is to allow the present powerful members of the EU to continue on their own path to integration without having to take account of the increasing flock of smaller members.
Nicholas Whyte, a senior analyst with the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, puts it in this context: "The political reason for this [policy] is that it's felt some of the newer member states may not be institutionally up to the demand of whatever the next step in the European Union's activities turns out to be."
Another analyst, Alexander Smolar, director of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, says, however, that East Europeans worry about the broader implications of enhanced cooperation. "This is certainly perceived by the newcomers as a danger for, let's say, their 'equal citizenship' in the European Union -- that this is the way to grant membership and yet to deprive them [the newcomers] of a big part of the advantages of membership at the same time."
Two recent events illustrate a possible trend in which the powerful members are becoming more inclined to go their own way.
One, last month, was a mini-summit on the antiterrorism war called by French President Jacques Chirac, with only the leaders of Germany and Britain. As Smolar puts it, this shocked the sensibilities of other EU members, who were not consulted. Italy, the fourth "Mr. Big" among the EU members, was particularly annoyed at being left out.
Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried the same thing. He called a mini-summit over the weekend (4 November) on the same subject to which initially only Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were invited. As an afterthought, the prime ministers of Italy and Spain were added to the list at the last minute.
But by then, the other EU members were more alert, and Blair's phone ran hot. Dutch media say Prime Minister Wim Kok rang to express anger at being excluded, and was subsequently given an invitation. EU foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana got himself invited, as did Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium, the current EU president. Verhofstadt was reportedly going to boycott the meeting to protest the exclusion of others, but decided that attending would be more constructive.
Portugal, which received no invitation, was reportedly angered, with the Lusa news agency quoting a political source in Lisbon as saying such meetings do not add to European unity or to the antiterrorist coalition. After all, under the policy of enhanced cooperation, any EU member is supposed to be able to join any group it wishes; only those who want to be absent need stay away. That's a crucial difference as regards these two mini-summits.
At least, as analyst Whyte points out, the presence of Solana and Verhofstadt, as representatives of the EU institutions, did give the Blair meeting a European dimension in the end. But he says the fuss caused shows the limitations of this sort of gathering, where attendance is restricted by the participants.
"I think the fact that other countries will feel left out, frankly it underlines the difficulty of proceeding in this way; because the whole point of the EU is that it gives to each of the countries a set of well-understood set of powers, and this sort of informal gathering [therefore] has limitations as any sort of real policy mechanism."
But Whyte challenges the conventional view that the East European newcomers may be the ones that suffer most under a more extensive use of the enhanced cooperation. Quite the reverse, in fact.
"I think that is probably a misjudgment. I think that what you will find is that it becomes an excuse for those countries which are more hesitant about integration -- that is, the Scandinavians, the British, the Spanish -- it becomes an excuse for them to sit out on the latest development until they feel that the time is right for them to join. So what was designed to be a way of maintaining the East-West divide is going to have quite the opposite effect, it's going to shift the center of gravity of the EU much more toward Central Europe."
As the first Easterners are supposed to become EU members starting around 2004, it should be evident before too long which theory is the right one.