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EU: A Half Century Later, Union Searches For Expanded Role

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union this week saw the expiration of the 50-year-old treaty that established its forerunner, the European Coal and Steel Community. The closing of a chapter in the history of postwar Europe comes at a time when the EU is deeply preoccupied with its plans for eastward expansion and with the development of a common foreign and security policy. Belgium has just added a new dimension to the debate by calling for mutual security guarantees between EU members.

Prague, 25 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A chapter in modern European history came to an end this week when a blue and black flag with stars was lowered for the last time at a building in the European Union quarter of Brussels.

The ceremony with the little-known flag marked the expiration on 23 July of the treaty that founded the European Coal and Steel Community on that date in 1952. The aim of the treaty was to make new wars in Europe impossible by placing essential industries like coal-mining and steel-making under common control.

The six original signatories to the treaty were Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. From these origins stems the present 15-member EU.

Fifty years later, the union now has other preoccupations, one of the foremost being its plans to begin expanding into Eastern and Central Europe by 2004. Together with these difficult expansion negotiations, the EU is holding a Convention on the Future of Europe, a gathering which is meant to make recommendations on how the expanded union should develop in future, now that the first 50 years are over.

The convention is becoming the scene of sharp divergences of opinion between those who want continued progression toward the creation of a federalized Europe, with more power at the center, and those who -- fearing loss of national identity -- want most powers to remain with the member states.

Founding member Belgium stands among the staunch pro-integrationalists, and Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt this week made a bold new proposal for EU integration in security and military affairs.

In a letter to Britain and France, Verhofstadt called for mutual security guarantees for all EU members to be built into a future EU Constitution. He also called for the creation of an integrated EU military command and an EU armaments agency.

At present there is no mutual defense obligation codified by EU treaty, and the EU does not yet have any deployable military forces of its own.

Verhofstadt's proposal is controversial, considering the opposition to such deep integration among some members, including Britain.

But there is a precedent for his view. Almost a year ago (4 September), European Commission President Romano Prodi caused a stir when he suggested that the security which EU states enjoy by being members of the union is "on the same level" as they would obtain from belonging to the NATO alliance.

Prodi said there is no point to the union if one of its member states can be attacked without a reaction from the rest. He did not directly specify whether he had military reaction in mind.

Prodi's comments at the time appeared particularly aimed at the three Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These three EU candidate countries are eager for NATO membership, but the likelihood of that was, at the time, greatly overshadowed by Russian opposition. Today, Moscow's opposition seems less of an obstacle.

Verhofstadt's call for mutual European defense rests on other grounds, namely on the notion that NATO's strength has been sapped by a recent international preference for "ad-hoc coalitions."

That's a reference to the U.S-led antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan, in which NATO members are participating individually rather than as part of a concerted alliance effort.

The Belgian leader also sees these same pressures as leading to a "renationalization" of defense issues among EU members.

Analysts view his call for new pan-European defense measures as optimistic, or even unrealistic, given the EU's mediocre performance in this direction so far. The union's plans for creation of its first joint military force, commonly referred to as the Rapid Reaction Force, have long been in limbo because of a dispute dragging on between Greece and Turkey over pending accession state Turkey's influence in the new force.

London-based analyst Daniel Keohane, of the Centre for European Reform, says that in the short term at least, the Belgian call is impractical. One reason would be that the militarily neutral members of the EU -- Ireland, Sweden, and Finland -- would probably object. Another, he says, is that "Some countries, particularly the United Kingdom, would prefer to concentrate on revitalizing NATO's role rather than looking at creating new institutions and new agreements in the EU context; I think they would feel that the EU is not ready for that sort of thing yet."

Independent defense consultant Alexandra Ashbourne agrees with Keohane on the impracticality issue. She says, however, that Verhofstadt's plan would be interesting for the EU's Central and East European candidate members.

"Thinking on behalf of the new members, of course, the idea of an unconditional security guarantee is very, very attractive; up till now, its always been assumed that EU membership would offer a security guarantee, but there was nothing concrete."

Ultimately, analyst Keohane finds that Verhoftadt's vision of pan-European defense forces might be more relevant.

"In the longer term, there is an argument to say that NATO itself could become more of an EU-U.S. organization, [in other words,] more of a two-pillar organization, or even three-pillar if one includes Russia on certain issues; there is a case to be made that is the way NATO will develop in the next five or 10 years."

Fifty years after the Coal and Steel Community's foundation, there is still lively debate about how European and Euro-Atlantic institutions can be developed and improved for the different needs of the new century.