German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has reopened the debate about the future development of the European Union with radical proposals that foresee far greater integration among member states. But Germany's desire for what amounts to an eventual federation of nation states in Europe is not shared by all EU members -- nor by all the Central and East European candidates countries due soon to accede to the Union.
Prague, 30 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Union leaders could perhaps be likened to a group of tourists in swimsuits standing next to the ocean. The Germans in the group are calling out heartily that it's time to plunge into the deep water, not just paddle in the shallows. The French, more fastidious, are willing to go in the surf only up to their knees. The British, apparently exasperated to find themselves on a foreign shore, are refusing to go near the water at all. Others of the group, from smaller countries, are milling about on the beach, awaiting a clear lead on what they should do.
This little scene could be viewed as a parody of the current debate about the EU's future direction. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's new proposals on restructuring Union institutions, revealed over the weekend, represent the deep-water end of things. It's not that they are especially new. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer covered much the same ground last year. But a key difference is that whereas Fischer was speaking in a personal capacity, Schroeder's proposals are contained in draft documents of his ruling Social Democratic Party.
Those documents are expected to go to a party convention for adoption in autumn. This would likely mean the proposals would form the basis of the Shroeder government's official approach to the Intergovernmental Conference of 2004. That's the EU conference that is supposed to define permanently the powers of the Union's central authorities relative to the powers of its member states and their regions.
Briefly, according to news reports, the Schroeder proposals would mean turning the present EU Executive Commission into a European government. At present the Commission is often overridden by national governments, but under the German plan, this would apparently no longer be possible. Similarly, the present EU Council of Ministers would form the basis for a second chamber of a greatly strengthened European Parliament.
The result would be a kind of federalism strongly at odds with, for instance, the British vision, which regards the preservation of national sovereignty as more important than the limited powers ceded to Brussels. Still, despite the risk of their producing disharmony in the Union, EU affairs analyst Brendan Halligan says he views the German proposals as a necessary part of the debate on the future. He says all EU leaders are duty-bound to make public their own ideas on the theme.
Halligan, chairman of the Institution of European Affairs in Dublin, says changes are unavoidable:
"It follows that if we widen the [EU] integration process geographically, by taking in the Czech Republic for example, that we have got to simultaneously deepen the process of integration, and there is no fear of that in this country [Ireland], there never has been."
Another analyst, Alexander Smolar of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, points to the unease among some of the 10 candidate member countries of Central and East Europe, which are reluctant in the post-Soviet era to see themselves again tightly bound to an outside authority. He told our correspondent:
"Those countries which regained their independence, or gained their independence, a very short time ago, they are not in what one could call a post-modernist, a post-nationalist period. It's [instead] the other way around -- they are state-building, and the problems of the sovereignty of the state still play quite a strong role in those countries."
But on the positive side, Smolar says he believes the Eastern newcomers are going through a learning process as they come closer to the EU. In the end, he says, that will help them to accept a higher degree of integration.
Smolar also says there are historical reasons why Poles and other Easterners need not fear increased integration. He says that's because nationhood in East Europe was often forged historically from factors which would not be affected by today's EU moves.
"The danger for national identity implied by the process of further political integration for [Poland] is smaller for instance than for countries like France. Why so? Because France was the nation built around the nation concept [of integrating different elements]. Therefore limiting the importance of the nation states [now] could be quite dangerous for the integrating forces in France as a country, whereas the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, they created themselves as nations while part of hostile empires or in the conditions of lost national sovereignty. Their integration was built around culture, about history, about tradition, about religion, so that a certain weakening [today] of the nation states would not imply a weakening of those factors in these [Eastern] nations."
For another analyst, Krassen Stanchev of the Bulgarian Institute of Market Economy in Sofia, increased integration within the EU could benefit Southeast Europe both before and after the candidate countries there become EU members. In remarks to RFE/RL, he said:
"Greater authority for Brussels would mean, of course, more coordinated efforts to negotiate matters with troubled regions like the Balkans and with accession countries as some sort of a package."
Stanchev thinks that, after countries like Bulgaria and Romania join the EU, integration could actually produce more efficient governance at the national level:
"Romanian and Bulgarian voters have been fed-up enough of their own governments and their lack of ability to tackle local matters. So I don't think that -- especially for Bulgaria ,which is a smaller country and more open than Romania -- that [Brussels having more powers] would be a problem."
As Stanchev notes, however, the process of EU integration is a slow one, and no dramatic developments are to be expected soon.