A mid-December summit in Brussels produced a budget for the 25-member bloc that will cover the next seven years. But even if the summit succeeds, it is unlikely to remove the sense of drift growing since the EU took in 10 new members mainly from Eastern Europe back in May 2004.
At the time of the expansion, the EU appeared poised to take a weightier role on the world's stage. A major new constitution was under preparation to give the enlarged bloc coherence, morale was high, and a common foreign policy was developing under foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana.
Crisis Of Confidence
But one year after the EU’s historic enlargement , voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the constitution in nationwide referendums. Their rejection last May tore the fragile fabric of European unity, and things have only worsened since then.
“The real crisis in the EU is this kind of loss of confidence in further European integration," said Peter Zervakis, a senior analyst at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany. "The political elites by themselves [now] seem doubtful about which direction to move in.”
Why did French and Dutch voters reject the EU constitution?
Explanations vary. Some say voters wanted to punish EU elites for not consulting with them on key EU developments. Others suggest voters were concerned about the impact on jobs of continued enlargement, in particular if Turkey's is allowed to join. Still others argue that there was simply a lack of understanding of the complicated document.
Whatever the exact motives, the referendum defeats were a psychological shock, robbing the EU of essential momentum.
“European integration depends more on dynamism, on dynamic development, than actually on standstill," Zervakis said. "I think it is [Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude] Juncker who has many times compared the European Union to a train, a train that must have a chosen direction, and must have some speed for the journey.”
The British presidency of the EU, which began in June, has drawn sharp criticism from the EU partners as six wasted months in which London made little attempt to repair the damage. Prime Minister Tony Blair has been preoccupied with the continuing war in Iraq, and the aftermath of the London terror bombings in July. He is also beginning to lose political support at home.
Lack Of Direction?
The inability of Blair and other EU leaders to give a clear sense of direction is part of Europe's malaise. The other big EU states -- Germany, France, and Poland -- each have had their own leadership problems. Germany is now ruled by an unwieldy left-right coalition under Angela Merkel that is not expected to produce strong policies.
At to France, senior analyst Marco Incerti of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies said President Jacques Chirac is devastated.
“France has been incredibly weakened by the ‘no’ in the constitutional referendum, and this has left the president as a lame duck who is currently reduced to claiming credit for defense of agriculture, and raising his voice on issues which were already settled,” Incerti said.
Meanwhile in Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, appointed in November 2004, is a technocrat who lacks the vision and authority to make the European Commission's voice heard among national leaders.
“We have to wait for things to settle before Europe can regain any kind of momentum, but of course, regaining momentum will depend upon the kind of leaders that come in, that's what is really important," Incerti said. "Unfortunately once again, we may be talking about Europe, but we have to look at the national elections, to watch developments at that level.”
Another problem is that the new and the old EU members have not really succeeded in growing together in the past year. The older members still fear their new cheap-labor partners.
For instance, there is presently uproar in Ireland over an attempt by a ferryboat company to sack 500 Irish employees and replace them with Latvians paid less than half the Irish rates.
Another indication of the sensitivity of this issue came this week.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in December that France wanted the EU to delay granting Macedonia the status of candidate member. He said the EU had barely coped with the last enlargement, and needed time to think, at least until after a full debate on the bloc's future which is set for the middle of 2006.
For their part, the newcomers still feel like outsiders at the table, especially in view of suggestions like that by Blair to cut their development funds by 10 percent to solve the budget differences among the older members.
The state of the European project today raises the old question of whether so many separate countries can really gel into a coherent whole, or even if they want to do so.
“There will not, in my opinion, be any more of this common program in future, of a common EU 25 or 28 together continuing with [integration measures] like the constitution,” said analyst Zervakis.
Instead, Zervakis said, it is feasible to think that only those nations that want to ratify the constitution will do so, and will continue with integration.
It has been suggested that the euro group -- the 12 countries that have agreed to share a common currency -- would make an ideal platform for continued integration.
But how would the EU manage its different groups? According to Zervakis, that is the key question.