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EU: As Enlargement Looms, Is The EU Commission Losing Influence?

With a start to eastward expansion only a few years away, the European Union is itself in a ferment, as established members work to make room in the Union for newcomers, while at the same time maneuvering to protect their own interests. This has led to perceptions that the EU's central institutions such as the Commission are losing influence to the larger member states. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at some of the issues.

Prague, 31 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It's become clear in recent months that the coming eastward expansion of the European Union, which is unprecedented in size and scope, will transform the Union itself as much as it will change any individual new member.

Over the last 30 years or so, the EU has grown to its present 15 member states by comparatively easy stages, with a few newcomers joining at a time, such as Spain and Portugal in 1986, and Austria, Sweden, and Finland in 1995.

But now, with a total of 12 newcomers jockeying to enter the Union as quickly as possible, many within the span of five years, the old club atmosphere is being blown apart.

All the newcomers are seeking to share in the economic prosperity which has been a hallmark of the EU's development. But their presence will also create new political realities, given that the Union is a political entity still very much under construction.

What eventual shape the EU will take cannot yet be foreseen -- whether a federalized superstate, a looser association of semi-sovereign states, or some other form -- that lies in the hands of the members themselves.

A senior analyst with the Centre for European Reform in London, Heather Grabbe, say the enlargement has complicated the debate about future directions. She says that the old battle lines of pro-federalists on the one hand and champions of member states' rights on the other are now basically outmoded. She says:

"I don't think we have a stark choice either between having a fully integrated, totally Brussels-led Europe and [simply] a type of free trade area, I mean these are not the kind of polar opposites which are really realistic anymore, because the EU has become more varied in the ways it does things and the ambitions of the member states for the Union."

She refers to the recently-endorsed policy of flexibility called "enhanced cooperation", under which small groups of member states -- whether new or old -- will be able to forge ahead with their own projects for integration. Grabbe says that, given these changed circumstances, the arrival of new members can be a source of strength rather than confusion:

"I would argue that it does strengthen the EU because it brings in new perspectives, particularly on policy towards the east, it also brings in countries which have undergone a series of very radical reforms and which have seen root and branch reform and change, real transformation of both their political systems and also their economies, so they are countries which bring a different set of perspectives on what is possible and how fast it can be achieved in terms of reform in the EU."

One result of the present ferment is the perception that the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, is losing out in influence to the individual member states. Commission President Romano Prodi has warned against what he calls a "worrying tendency," especially by big members, to try to settle EU affairs among themselves at government to government level.

In the present conference on EU institutional reform, some of the bigger members -- with their eyes on enlargement -- are perceived as wanting a weaker Commission as a means of limiting the influence of the increasingly-numerous smaller states. The Commission has traditionally been supportive of the smaller members in disputes with larger members.

However, another senior analyst, Brussels-based Daniel Gross of the Centre for European Policy Studies, says this perception of a Commission diminished in power is overdrawn. He says that to gain an accurate picture of what is happening, one needs to consider the issues being dealt with inside the EU at any given time.

He notes that in the past there were key initiatives which very heavily involved the Commission, like the 1992 program on the creation of an EU-wide single market. That successful involvement naturally created a favorable perception of the power of the Commission. At present, by contrast, he says there is no issue the Commission is handling which is able to project the same impression -- given that the Commission's role in the eastward expansion process is largely at the technical level. He says:

"At present you are dealing with areas in which initially at least, the Commission is not so closely involved -- like for example justice and home affairs -- in these areas what is happening is that they are being dealt with first among member states, and then, as they are consolidated and most member states participate, they are brought into the EU treaty, so during the first stage it looks like power is going away from the Commission, but then the second step is that the Commission actually expands its area of competence."

Gross says the project to create what is being called an "area of justice and freedom" across the EU by 2004, is now going forward mainly at inter-governmental level, but that over time the project will be integrated into treaty form, thus bringing the Commission back into the picture, as the executive arm empowered to ensure implementation of those provisions.