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EU: Outcry Continues Over Big Powers Acting Alone

  • Breffni O'Rourke

A storm has broken out within the European Union over the recent mini-summit meetings held by the leaders of Britain and France to discuss the antiterrorist campaign. Both meetings were restricted by the hosts to key EU players, leading to an outcry among the smaller member states which were excluded. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke explores the question of what this shows about the strength or weakness of the Union, and how Eastward enlargement could further complicate the picture.

Prague, 8 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The row which has broken out over the mini-summits held by French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair show to what an extent the European Union is still a house under construction.

Chirac called Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder together in Ghent last month, to discuss progress in the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign. As the Union's three major military powers, already active in support of the United States, the consultations made sense. However, they also caused the first rumblings from some of the excluded EU members. As a leading Polish political analyst, Alexander Smolar, puts it, the mini-summit was "awkwardly done."

"It provoked a sort of shock because [the three-way summit] took place without consultations with others, without asking others about which of them would like to participate in such an enhanced cooperation, as we could call it."

By the time Blair tried to get together with Chirac and Schroeder for a similar three-way mini-summit on 4 November, the shock had transformed into wide opposition. Even though Blair extended the invitation list at the last minute to include several other prime ministers and EU institutions, it came too late to stave off a round of protest and criticism.

Politicians and the media in Portugal, Greece, Denmark, Austria, and Finland complained about the exclusion, with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel saying the smaller EU nations will "never accept" rule by a select inner circle.

Schuessel today made a formal protest to the EU authorities on behalf of eight smaller nations. He told journalists afterward: "We are of the opinion that all the 15 member states should discuss relevant issues in times like these. If we discuss, for instance -- and this is very important -- especially if we discuss how to bring fresh air, fresh spirit to the Middle Eastern peace process, if we discuss our position [with regard] to our trans-Atlantic friends, the United States, and how to keep the world in a global coalition, I think everybody should be present."

Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen was among those who criticized the exclusive approach. The press counselor at the Finnish mission in Brussels, Mikael Carpelan, explains Lipponen's view of the Blair summit: "He [Lipponen] expressed his annoyance to [Finland's] parliament yesterday (6 November), and said this had been a 'peculiar meeting,' a 'bizarre meeting' which did not bring forward the Union. He said also that nothing new had come about regarding the military situation in Afghanistan [as a result of the consultations]."

In his remarks, however, Lipponen made a distinction between last month's meeting hosted by Chirac and the Blair summit this past weekend. He said he had nothing against the first meeting involving the "big three," because it had dealt with military matters -- a policy area outside the competence of the Union. But he said the Blair meeting had quite a different character -- it had raised issues about the Mideast peace process, about humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and about the post-Taliban order in Afghanistan -- all questions within the competence of the Union.

In a sense, the controversy could be said to show both the strength and the weakness of the Union.

It exhibits the Union's fortitude in that the big three -- France, Germany, and Britain -- are no longer perceived as entitled to act entirely at their own whim as self-contained nation-states. This indicates that members are now considered politically -- as well as economically -- embedded in the union, and to be part of a broader entity.

On the other hand, the relative weakness of the Union is also demonstrated in that, in the midst of the terrorism crisis, the big three felt they were able to act without consulting their partners.

It's not yet clear whether Britain and the other large member states will persist with these selective meetings or abandon the practice. EU affairs analyst Brendan Halligan says he expects to see more such hastily-convened informal summits as the terrorism crisis unfolds. Halligan, the chairman of the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin, says he finds it "entirely reasonable" that those EU members that carry the greatest political weight should come together on an informal basis.

"It would be wrong to put any obstacle or impediment in the path of prime ministers getting together very rapidly, and agreeing a position among themselves, which I think they could generally take as reflecting a consensus inside the Union -- not a formal agreement, but one in the spirit, the sense, of what it is the member states as a whole would want to have happen."

As mentioned by analyst Smolar in Warsaw, the Blair and Chirac mini-summits could be seen as an example of "enhanced cooperation" among EU members. This refers to the ability of member countries to form themselves into groups to pursue a particular goal, even if other member states do not wish to be involved. This option is expected to grow in importance in the future, as the Union expands to a total of 27 members and more.

Enhanced cooperation is seen as a way for the Union to get things done in a quicker, more streamlined way, without having to wait for interminable consultations among all the members. As analyst Halligan says: "Could you imagine trying to convene such a meeting at short notice of 27 leaders? You can imagine how difficult it is going to be to get them [even] to formal meetings of the European Council, which are notified well in advance and with full agenda -- months in advance, if not years in advance. But to try and get them together at 24 or 48 hours notice, well, obviously somebody is going to miss out."

One major distinction, however, between the two recent mini-summits and the general concept of enhanced cooperation is that such cooperation is supposed to be open to all who wish to join. The summits, by contrast, were exclusive, with attendance by invitation only.