The European Union, an economic giant, plays only a marginal role on the world's political stage. It has difficulty formulating a common approach to many issues, and when its membership is swollen by the incoming Central and Eastern European candidate countries, that problem will only worsen. At the same time, international events are demanding a higher profile from the EU. Can the expanded Union rise to this challenge and, if so, will it be at a high cost in terms of, say, the national sovereignty of members?
Prague, 26 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Crises have a way of producing unexpected results. Take, for example, the various food scares that have swept the European Union in the last few years. Apart from the foot-and-mouth and mad-cow outbreaks, there was the alarm about dioxin contamination of Belgian foodstuffs.
The dioxin case in particular led the European Commission to unveil on 21 February reform proposals that will give the Union greater powers over food safety, including the right to recall suspect food products from shops around the entire Union. Previously, Brussels has had to seek the permission of individual member states before issuing a recall notice.
The streamlining and strengthening of food safety regulations in the EU serves as an example of the proposition that a crisis tends to reveal weaknesses in any given system. As a result, people make efforts to improve the system in question. If the modified system becomes more effective, then -- de facto -- it delivers more power into the hands of those who control it.
Now, if that proposition works for the food safety issue, let's try and apply it to another and broader field, namely the European Union's common foreign and security policy.
First and foremost, a degree of crisis is sufficiently present in international affairs, what with the threat of continued terrorism, plus regional turmoil like that in the Middle East. Second, the weaknesses in the EU's fledgling common policies have been revealed by this crisis. Although united in their support for the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign, member states have largely reacted to it on an individual basis, sometimes even ignoring Union structures in the process. Also, the EU has dithered in formulating a policy on the Middle East and has had difficulty being accepted as a serious player in the region, despite Arab calls for it to become more involved.
As a result, the next step in the proposition -- namely, efforts to improve the system -- are already visible on the horizon.
In a press interview over the weekend in the "Mainzer Allgemeine Zeitung" of 23 February, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Europe will not be taken seriously until it has genuine joint security and foreign policies, just as it now has a "single market and a single currency."
Those comments -- in particular the reference to the euro currency project -- appear to be a call for further radical integration of Union members and a strengthening of the Union. In a similar tone, EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten has called closer cooperation on foreign and security policy "vital" if the EU is to be effective in preventing conflict in the Balkans and elsewhere.
But that then brings us to the next step -- namely, that the more effective Brussels becomes the more power is drawn to the center and from the periphery, meaning away from the individual member states. And that implied or actual erosion of national sovereignty is exactly what euroskeptics -- particularly in Britain, Sweden, and Denmark -- want to avoid.
The issue for the EU is therefore how, or indeed whether, it can become a global political power when there are such different views of its role and purpose.
Historically, the trend would seem to favor the pro-integrationists over non-integrationist hold-outs -- at least when one looks at examples like the United States, where the federal government has, over a long period of time, drawn powers to itself and away from the constituent states.
Complicating the picture for the EU is the fact that foreign and security policy is not designated as falling within the competence of the Union. It is a key residual power reserved for the member states. But the states acknowledged the external pressures pushing them toward mutual cooperation when they appointed Javier Solana to be the EU's first High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.
The director of the European Parliament's press service, David Harley, says: "It is felt to be very important for our [EU] relations with other key regions, continents and governments around the world that the European Union should have a single representative that can speak in its name, and that is the role of Mr. Solana as High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. But it is not an area that, formally speaking, has entered the sphere of community competence. It is [instead] an area where governments come together, and share ideas, and take common decisions."
So Solana was envisaged as giving voice to the consensus views -- albeit sometimes feeble -- of the member states. But given the dynamics of the global geopolitical situation, his office seems likely to draw power to itself at the center.
London-based analyst Steven Everts of the Centre for European Reform is among those calling for an end to what he terms "lowest common denominator decisions," which value internal consensus above external effectiveness. Everts calls for Solana to have greatly increased powers, including chairing decision-making meetings and gaining control of the European Commission's external relations directorate and aid resources.
Everts says that -- despite the views of the euroskeptics -- there is an "instinctive" understanding among Europeans that only by acting together can they hope to influence other parts of the world, whether it be Washington, the Middle East, or Russia. He says the EU is presently wasting its efforts on administering things like the Common Agricultural Policy, which he believes would be better handled by the members individually.
"There is a mismatch between what the EU does and what the people expect from it," Everts says. "If you ask people what they would like the EU to do, then foreign and security policy comes pretty high up people's agenda, because a large majority -- about two-thirds -- are in favor of the EU developing a stronger foreign policy role."
Everts adds that a failure by Brussels to strengthen its hand in the foreign policy area could have severe consequences: "There is a range of economically and politically unstable countries, from north Africa [and] the Middle East right into Central Asia, but also Moldova, Belarus and those countries which are right at the doorstep of the Union, and which will become very serious security and economic challenges to the EU. And that's where we should locate our resources."
With enlargement of the Union looming -- and with it, the prospect of an even greater babel of voices developing -- pressure will increase for Brussels to take the reins more firmly into its hands.
If that happens, the Eastern newcomers will find themselves facing a more detailed range of policies in foreign and security affairs than they may have initially expected.