Parliamentarians from European Union candidate countries were in Brussels this week to participate in a debate on the future shape of the EU. The event, organized by the European Parliament, was the first time candidate countries were invited to contribute to the EU constitutional debate launched during the Nice summit in December and expected to conclude in 2004. The week's foretaste of candidate views indicates that future members want to be involved as closely as possible in the debate, and will probably resist moves toward greater centralization within the EU.
Brussels, 23 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last December in Nice, EU leaders launched a wide-ranging debate on the constitutional future of the union. The debate will run for three years and culminate in 2004, when its results will be incorporated into a new EU treaty.
In Nice, EU leaders also indicated that 2004 is the likeliest date for the leading candidate countries to enter the bloc, hopefully in time to take part in the June 2004 elections to the European Parliament.
In order to avoid a situation in 2004 where up to 12 candidate countries could find themselves in a union that has just radically reinvented itself, the EU is now looking for ways to involve applicant countries in the debate.
What is at stake in the fledgling constitutional debate could amount to a new -- and first ever -- constitution for the EU. The debate is intended to divide competencies between the regions, member states, and the union itself in the future EU. It should also decide whether the EU needs a binding "bill of rights" for its citizens.
The implications of the debate were not lost on the participants in the first-ever joint debate of EU and candidate countries' parliamentarians organized in Brussels by the European Parliament.
Jan Zahradil, vice president of the Czech Parliament's lower chamber, said that although leading candidates had been holding accession talks for more than three years, they had not yet touched on the more fundamental issues.
"I think that especially for us, representatives of acceding countries, it is now necessary to stop thinking about the EU in only technical terms and administrative terms, in terms of how many directives we were able to adopt -- and to start a bit politically flavored debate. What is the kind of EU we would like to see in the future and how we would like to contribute to the future model of the EU?"
If thinking about the EU in fundamental terms is a relatively novel idea for the governments and parliaments of the candidate countries, matters can hardly be better among applicant countries' citizens. But in at least some candidate countries, in roughly three years' time they may be called on to vote in accession referenda and send their own representatives to the European Parliament.
Gintaras Steponavicius, vice president of the Lithuanian Seimas, said this means both the EU and candidate governments must step up efforts to engage candidate citizens in the debate on the EU's future.
"I would encourage nationwide discussions in future member states in order to give [the] opportunity to the citizens of our countries to really assess what the new European Union [is going to be like]. By this, I think, [the] elections [in] 2004 to the European Parliament will give even for the new member states, and the voters of those states...[a] much better understanding [of] what decisions they are taking."
Most candidate parliamentarians made it clear that they prefer the debate to be as open as possible to the general public. They also said the debate should not only involve governments but representatives of the civil society, and should be accessible over the Internet.
Giving a foretaste of the views they are going to take to the debate, many of the candidate representatives said they would resist moves towards greater centralization within the EU.
Jerzy Jaskiernia, deputy chairman of the Polish Sejm, spoke for most of his Eastern European colleagues when he said candidates would not be prepared to give up their national identities:
"Something that I consider misleading and harmful in the European debate is the fear that European history, [the] Second World War, the East-West Cold War, and even present activities lead us to the end of the nation state and to [a] transfer of all this sovereignty to a sort of 'United States of Europe.' I think that [the] time has come to say strongly and to convince our society that the EU will not threaten the existence of [the] nation state."
Tunne Kelam, deputy chairman of Estonia's Riigikogu, tacitly acknowledged the apparent paradox of striving for greater European integration while resisting a loss of national sovereignty. He said that although the EU must not become a "superstate" or even a "federal state," the thinking behind its evolution cannot escape being "federalist."