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EU: After 10 Years, A Union In Name, But In Practice Still A Work In Progress

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union is 10 years old. The name was adopted a decade ago to signify the ever-closer links between the members of what was previously called the European Community, and before that the Common Market. What's in a name? the poets ask. In fact, names can have an important role in shaping how people view their country and their lives as Europeans.

Prague, 10 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Titles like the European Free Trade Area or the European Common Market are difficult to make interesting. Probably only an economist's pulse beats faster after hearing such names.

European Community suggests more. It implies a commonality of purpose and interest going beyond mere money matters. The term European Union suggests far more, the completion of a process of making one entity out of many separate parts.

From that point of view, the present European Union is not aptly named. Its 15 members are a fractious lot who often disagree with one another vehemently. The addition of another 10 members next year will only complicate the picture. Behind that, there are more countries waiting to enter the EU in the years ahead. True harmony, if it ever comes at all, remains a long way off.

As Peter Zervakis, a senior analyst with the Center for European Integration Research at Bonn University, puts it, the road is a bumpy one. "It is a painful path, as the [European] Union is something completely new," he said. "You cannot compare it with any kind of alliance or any other union in history. It is something not seen before."

Zervakis describes it as a group of nations and governments pooling their sovereignty after realizing they can better accomplish goals by working together rather than singly. By pooling money and competencies, they can escape from the confines of the nation-state.

He said there is sometimes resistance to this concept, and he cites Greece, which for two decades was a "stranger among partners" until, in the 1990s, it realized it could gain more by being a full partner than by hanging back. Poland, which is not yet even an EU member, is going through the same process of placing its sovereignty first. "It's a learning process, and sooner or later every member state understands that it does not actually lose power but gains more influence within a group of equals," Zervakis added.

It is now 10 years since the member states adopted the term "union" to describe their relationship. Imperfect as it may be, it represents the culmination of a long path from the drearily named European Coal and Steel Community formed in 1951. That original body was meant to pool the resources of Germany and France to prevent the means for waging more war in Europe.

By the mid-1950s, a "common market" was under discussion. Then along came the European Economic Community, the European Community, and finally, in 1993, the European Union. At each step, the entity has grown in power. Today, its common body of rules fills some 80,000 pages of small type.

The next stage in the process, the adoption of the EU's first constitution, could further strengthen the links binding the members together, despite the desire of anti-integrationists to limit the centralizing movement. That's because while the anti-integrationists battle on a few key fronts, the remainder of the pro-integrationist constitution will likely be passed into law unchanged.

Events on the ground also carry their own logic. For instance, the ever-increasing flood of illegal immigration into Europe is threatening to overwhelm individual members and will likely lead to the EU shouldering ever more responsibility for immigration, asylum, and border management.

Another analyst, Sebastian Kurpas of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, said: "Single member states -- however large they are -- cannot deliver any more on issues like these because they have become transnationalized, have become Europeanized, and have been also increasingly accepted as having to be treated at the European level."

There is also heavy pressure for the EU to develop further its common foreign and security policy. Surveys show public opinion in both present member states and accession countries as strongly in favor of the EU strengthening its policies in this area. But Kurpas said: "They are two issues -- foreign policy and a common defense policy -- where people say, 'Yes, there would be 'added value' through a European presence.' But tragically, we have seen not only during the Iraq crisis, but also on many other occasions, that national decision makers are still not ready to come to a common point. It's very difficult, and the EU does not yet have the instruments to come up with a coordinated point of view because here you really do touch at the heart of the notion of national sovereignty."

Kurpas cautions against believing that the integrationist impulse is automatic. He says past experience shows that, particularly in economics, if Brussels takes over one function, then a series of extra, related functions tends to be assigned to it as a matter of efficiency and logic. But he said: "I doubt that this will work as smoothly and as automatically with political [matters] -- with what you might call 'high politics.' There are symbolic issues [surrounding areas] like foreign policy and defense policy."

Another analyst, Alexander Smolar, a senior fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, says it's true that the future is uncertain and that the general mood is pessimistic at the moment. But he said: "We see even from a distance that the achievements [in European unity] are quite outstanding. This is the first time that this sort of unity has been achieved by peaceful means."

He sees the voluntary adoption of the euro common currency as unprecedented. Previous monetary unions, he notes, were imposed politically or militarily by others.

As negotiations on the new EU constitution continue, there have even been suggestions that -- 10 years on -- the European Union should adopt a new name. So far, however, nothing has captured the public's imagination. Or should one say, the public's ear.
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