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2001 In Review: Year Exposed Strains Among EU Members

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The year 2001 exposed strains within the European Union. The project of expanding the union to include formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe appeared to make progress, but much of the hard bargaining still lies ahead. At the same time, the leadership of the European Commission came under fire, with the press openly speculating that Commission President Romano Prodi might have to step down. The international terrorism crisis revealed the limitations of the union's fledgling common foreign and security policy. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke summarizes the old year and looks ahead to the new.

Prague, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The year 2001 was not an easy one for the European Union.

Its major project, the coming expansion of the EU eastward, made reasonable progress. But many of the most difficult issues in that process, such as subsidizing farmers or giving aid to relatively poor regions, have yet to be tackled.

The hardest bargaining is likely to come not from the candidates, but from among the existing EU members themselves. The EU states have to arrive at common negotiating positions on those key topics -- and others -- a process which traditionally strains the fabric of the union.

On regional funding, Spain, Portugal, and Greece are major recipients of EU development aid and have made it clear that they do not intend to give away too much of that money to the new, poorer members from the East.

On agriculture, France in particular is determined to preserve benefits for its farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy in spite of demands from newcomers like Poland.

Spain takes over the rotating presidency of the EU on 1 January, and chief enlargement negotiator Miguel Bauza of Spain says his main aim will be to reach internal EU positions on those and other topics: "During our term we hope we will be able to reach common positions on those chapters, even if they are difficult. We know they are difficult." Bauza rejects any suggestion that Spain will be swayed by its own vital interests. He says his country is fully committed to the enlargement process.

Looking at the realities confronting Madrid, analyst Steven Everts of the London-based Center for European Reform says: "It is inevitable that a considerable reduction in Spanish receipts will take place when the EU enlarges. Now the name of the game is what kind of [financial] transition mechanisms can be negotiated [by the Spanish] in this case?"

Beyond the strain of the accession negotiations, the enlargement process is having a major internal impact on the union in another way. The year saw a divisive debate develop on how -- in an expanded union -- powers should be shared among the EU's central institutions, the national governments of the member states, and the regions.

Members who are cool to further integration, like Britain, Sweden, and Denmark, fear that granting more powers to the center will eventually undermine national sovereignty and lead to creation of a federal super-state.

By contrast, Belgium, Germany, and others favor deepening integration, and apparently have no objection to that as a final goal. Outgoing EU president Belgium presented the EU's end-of-the-year summit at Laeken (14-15 December) with a pro-integrationist blueprint that did not win favor among the skeptics, and was watered down.

The key debate on the union's future comes at a time when criticism has broken out again about the leadership qualities of Commission President Romano Prodi. Prodi, a likeable, avuncular former academic from Italy, is being blamed for a loss of influence by the commission vis-a-vis the member governments. He has had to suffer snubs by leaders like French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Typical of the criticism of Prodi are remarks in the Brussels-based weekly "European Voice" by columnist Gareth Harding (14 November). He writes that Prodi neither excels as a politician nor as a visionary and is a poor communicator. Harding says this comes at a time when the EU strongly needs to connect with the people it is supposed to represent.

That's a reference to polls showing EU popularity on the decline during the year both among member countries and in the Eastern candidate nations.

While the Prodi-led commission was perceived to be weakening, a lively controversy broke out in October after French President Chirac held a mini-summit with British and German leaders to discuss the antiterror campaign. The exclusive nature of the talks angered other EU members, who saw it as an attempt by the bigger members to formulate union policy on their own.

When Britain's Tony Blair tried to call the same sort of gathering a little later, the row broke into the open, with Austria's Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, speaking on behalf of the smaller member states, saying that such a tactic was "completely wrong."

Not everybody thinks that way. Analyst Brendan Halligan, chairman of the Dublin-based Institute of European Affairs, says it's natural that big countries will have more say in foreign affairs and will sometimes want to discuss things among themselves.

"I think the smaller [member] states recognize that in fact there is a 'first' and 'second' division in terms of foreign policy, in respect to influence. It's perfectly obvious that a country like Germany is far more influential than, say, a country like Luxembourg, to take the opposite ends of the spectrum in the current European Union. So inside that reality, I think there has to be give and take on both sides."

The September terrorism crisis in any case revealed that the EU's proposed common security policy is still too tender to withstand much pressure at the moment.

Commentator Michael Stuermer in the German newspaper "Die Welt" (1 November), for instance, criticized the EU's lack of concerted action on broad security issues. He wrote that suddenly individual member states are taking the initiative on their own. They have sent political and diplomatic emissaries here and there and deployed troops. But, Stuermer said, the national states in Europe in the long run "can only be secure thanks to common action."

The Laeken summit announced the birth of the union's own rapid reaction military force, which is seen as a key extension of the unified foreign and security policy. But in its initial state, the rapid reaction force will not be capable of full-scale activities. The past year saw a wrangle with Turkey, then with Greece, over the new force's access to NATO assets. That dispute, and others, are certain to continue.

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