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EU: Strong Personalities Increasingly Drive The Organization, But For How Long?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

To an increasing extent, European Union decision making seems driven by the strong personalities of a handful of leading politicians: Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, Jacques Chirac of France, Tony Blair of Britain, and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. This phenomenon of "personality" could be set to grow as the EU expands eastward -- that is, if the top Central and Eastern European leaders are strong enough to push their way into the inner circle.

Prague, 3 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is a voluntary association of free and equal nations. True as that statement may be, no one will be surprised to learn that the political reality is that a handful of leaders from the biggest states largely run the show, while the smaller countries often have a "me too" role.

In particular, EU policymaking appears to be increasingly driven by four strong personalities: Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, President Jacques Chirac of France, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.

These four leaders are key elements in determining the direction of the union -- or sometimes its lack of direction -- in international affairs. Let's look briefly at the four.

Schroeder is a social democrat, but his instincts lie to the right of his party's mainstream. His ruthlessness is shown by his use of anti-EU and anti-American sentiment recently as ploys to help him gain re-election.

Blair and Schroeder are friends and natural allies, with the British leader also well to the right of traditional Labour Party thinking. Blair is intensely loyal to the United States, and his foreign policy objectives largely mirror those of Washington, especially now that attention is focused on how to ensure Iraqi disarmament.

Chirac is a man of a very different type -- polished, cool, a moderate conservative who in typical Gallic fashion navigates in EU waters to maximize France's advantage. The personal chemistry between Chirac and Schroeder is not good, and Schroeder's first foreign trip since re-election last month was to London, not to Paris, as is customary.

In Rome, Berlusconi is the man who has ended Italy's embarrassing half-century tradition of revolving-door governments. At the head of a strong center-right coalition, Berlusconi seems set to last. But his fast-track methods as a businessman have led to numerous legal cases in Italy and beyond, tarnishing his reputation. He is no enthusiast for the European project, and some of his rightist ministers are outright hostile to it.

The interaction of these four men is illustrated by the EU's compromise over U.S. demands for immunity from the new International Criminal Court. Blair in particular expressed understanding for the American fear that its nationals could be the target of politically motivated charges in the court. In this issue, he teamed up with Berlusconi, whose attitude was similar, and the two managed to swing the EU, including a reluctant Germany, to a significant concession to the United States.

On Iraq, the combination was different. Schroeder and Chirac met in Paris yesterday and jointly affirmed their opposition to any new UN resolution that would threaten automatic military intervention if Iraq fails to comply with arms inspections. Echoing Schroeder's recent rhetoric on Iraq, the French leader said he is "totally hostile" to any new UN resolution that would threaten Iraq with military action from the start -- as the United States wants.

Pro-Washington Blair has thus far been unable to break the link between the two continental leaders, and as a result, the EU has no common foreign policy on Iraq.

None of the big four leaders is a committed European integrationist, with the possible exception of Chirac. Analyst Aleksander Smolar, the head of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, says that Schroeder and Berlusconi -- with their coolness for the European project -- stand in marked contrast to the ranks of their predecessors.

And Smolar says the Franco-German partnership which has driven European integration for decades now has an emerging rival of a different complexion. He sees a developing coalition between Blair, Berlusconi, and conservative Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a trio that favors only limited integration among EU members.

The situation will become more complicated with the big eastward expansion of the union, expected to start in 2004. By far the biggest candidate country is Poland, and it will want to play in the big leagues. Says Smolar: "Certainly Poland's political class has an ambition to play [such] a role, and I wouldn't be surprised if there is a closeness of policy to this new grouping, in which [common] attitudes to the European Union will be manifest. It seems quite possible to me that Poland will be closer in its vision of Europe to countries like Italy and Spain and Britain."

That could tip the balance of power in the EU away from the traditional Franco-German axis. But Smolar sees that Warsaw's ability to play the sort of influential role that it wants for itself may be limited by circumstances: "For many years, Poland -- like the other candidate states -- will be too much preoccupied with their internal problems of adapting to the European Union framework. That will consume a big part of their energy."

So much for the EU's handful of big nations. They have the weight to influence other, smaller members and, if necessary, the votes in the EU's Council of Ministers. But the EU after 2004 will prospectively consist of 25 members, most of them small nations. What of them? Will they have a diminished status?

By no means, says senior analyst Pal Tamas of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. They have plans of their own, he says, "The Central Europeans are thinking of a sort of 'union of the small' around the big [countries], around the big four."

He says the newcomers want to join with long-standing members like Ireland, Portugal, and Sweden to seek strength in numbers. As he puts it, the big four have too little idealism to be able to steer the Union for long: "I believe in the power of the small. I don't believe that in the long term Berlusconi or Tony Blair or Schroeder or Chirac are strong enough. To be coherent, you need a very well-adapted vision of the world, and these big four have their national interests [in view] and have no vision at all."

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