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EU: How Much Does Membership Reduce National Sovereignty?

The European Union, already a grouping of 15 nations, will soon be expanding eastwards, eventually perhaps to almost double its membership. Each East European country will be joining voluntarily, but the EU is a club with many rules, and the question arises -- how much does membership reduce national sovereignty? Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke analyzes some of the issues involved.

Prague, 23 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The thing about going down a road, step by step, is that you eventually arrive at the destination which lies at the end of that road.

The European Union is proceeding with increasing speed down the road of economic and socio-political integration -- but what is the destination? No one is quite sure. Will the drive towards tighter integration lead to a single superstate, or a federation of semi-independent nations, or will a looser grouping prevail?

The 10 candidate member countries of central and east Europe are seeking to join the union as soon as possible, some within the next five years. But they are stepping aboard a moving train, and the union they are joining will be different in five years from what it is today.

For those in both East and West who wish to see their own nation states remain as they are, the integration drive is already a source of unease. In the West, the British in particular are wary of having more control move to Brussels. Among the Eastern candidates, some surveys indicate falling public support for joining the EU -- undoubtedly in part because of doubts over "interference" from Brussels.

Others, on the contrary, support continued construction of the "common European house" in order to raise living standards through efficiencies of economic scale, and to overcome the political divisions which traditionally plague Europe.

Ben Hall, the head of research at the London-based think tank the Centre for European Reform, puts it in perspective:

"What happens is that member states choose to pool sovereignty at the European level in order to reach the goals they are unable to achieve on their own. It was clear that member states on their own could not run effective monetary policies and maintain exchange rate stability across the whole European economy. It's clear that member states cannot run a proper immigration policy on their own. So what they are doing is agreeing to come together to set common policies."

Hall says that, to the extent they agree to pool their sovereignty, member states are certainly constrained by EU policies and laws.

And the next big step in the direction of integration is already being taken. It is in the form of the EU's Inter Governmental Conference, or IGC, which began last month and will continue all year.

The IGC consists of the present 15 EU members, but the accession candidates are being kept briefed on its progress, and they will have the opportunity to comment. The purpose of the IGC is to reform the EU's internal institutions so that it will remain workable even when expanded to 27 members.

A key element of the reforms is to increase the use of majority voting, thereby sharply reducing the use of individual members' veto power. At present, any member state can block an EU proposal if it feels that its vital interests are at stake.

But if the EU Executive Commission's recommendations are accepted, a veto could only be used in a very few cases, such as on matters relating to EU institutional change, or international agreements, or tax and social security decisions that are not related to the single EU market.

The veto would be replaced in other cases by what's called "qualified" majority voting. The exact formula for that is to be decided at the IGC, but the most likely system would be that a proposal would be accepted if a majority of states with a majority of the EU's total population voted for it.

This arrangement would produce efficiency and clarity of decision making, but at the same time it would subjugate national sovereignty to a degree not yet witnessed inside the EU. A member state would have to submit to the will of the majority, with no apparent means of redress apart from withdrawal from the union itself.

In mitigation, however, analyst Hall says that the usual EU custom is for things to be talked over first and a consensus reached, rather than a vote to be pushed through against dissent.

And Hall foresees the possibility in future of a move back towards decentralization, through Brussels divesting itself of some of its present functions:

"The EU should think about giving back certain aspects of policy that it can no longer run effectively at EU level, and agricultural policy might be the best example of that, and I'm pretty certain over the next 10 years we will see a gradual dismantling of EU control over agricultural policy, particularly over the way it is financed, national governments will have to increasingly fund agricultural support themselves."

He notes also that Brussels is moving increasingly towards the use of "softer" instruments to achieve common targets. These include for instance peer pressure, bench marking, league tables, best practice, and so fourth -- encouragements rather than dictates to members to conform to standards set by the EU.

Present EU members have of course had years, often decades, of experience of working with Brussels. For expansion, the strategy is to avoid unpleasant surprises for Brussels and the new members by ensuring broad compliance with EU norms before membership is granted, rather than after.