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EU: Sparks Guaranteed As Commission Presents Proposals For Future Of Europe

The European Commission today issued the proposals for an overhauled and streamlined European Union that it will submit to the Convention on the Future of Europe. Not surprisingly, the proposals give the commission a greatly strengthened role at the center of power in the expanded union. But they will run into stiff opposition at the convention, where there are quite different visions of Europe's future.

Prague, 22 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission today formally unveiled its plans for the future structure of an enlarged European Union.

The set of proposals will go to the Convention on the Future of Europe in Brussels, which is being chaired by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

As expected, the commission's proposals foresee a radical overhaul of the way the union works. In particular, they advocate a greatly strengthened role for the commission itself, reflecting commission President Romano Prodi's concern that an enlarged union will be unable to function coherently unless the center is given significant extra powers. That includes control over key areas like budgetary affairs and foreign and security matters.

The Prodi plan also foresees creation of a policy-making council for countries using the euro currency, of which there are 12 at present. By excluding noneuro countries -- among them the newcomers from Central and Eastern Europe -- such a proposal would appear certain to create divisions between "core" EU members and the "rest," most of which would be poorer than the inner group.

Not surprisingly, this centrist vision of the future is highly controversial and will run into strong opposition from member states like Britain, which prefers limited power at the center accompanied by mechanisms that allow more coherent exercise of power by the member states acting together.

Peter Zervakis, a senior researcher at the Centre for European Integration Studies in Bonn, said it's unlikely that Prodi will be able to steer his plan intact past national leaders unwilling to see an extension of the commission's powers.

"On the contrary, I see a tendency of further 'nationalization' of political issues, [and] therefore the movement of competences [areas of power] back to the nation-states," Zervakis said.

Zervakis sees as "completely" right Prodi's thinking that strong central powers are the most efficient way to govern an unwieldy, expanded union. That's the dilemma, as Zervakis put it.

"I see this like Prodi, that probably only the commission personifies the supranational interest of the whole union. But looking at political realities, the governments of member states are not willing any more to let another political organ hold the [powers of] coordination," Zervakis said.

According to reports in the "Financial Times," Britain, France, and Denmark are developing an alternative vision to Prodi's in which the commission would be virtually sidelined and serve as a civil service. Real power would be wielded by a strengthened European Council. That's the body that is made up of top representatives of the member states. Under the new scenario, the council would have a powerful long-term president backed by a secretariat, a move designed to give coherence and continuity to its decision-making process.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar this week became the latest EU leader to espouse this scenario. He urged that a council president be appointed to a term of either 2 1/2 or five years. Such an official, he said, would have no political responsibilities in his or her own country and should have previously served as a head of state or government. Aznar suggested a secretariat composed of a half-dozen heads of state or government appointed on a rotating basis. Power would flow downward through the various councils of ministers.

In accord with this thinking, EU political leaders are expected to take a first step toward giving the council more power at next month's summit at Seville in Spain. By moving early to create facts "on the ground," as it were, they would appear to be making the adoption of the pro-commission Prodi plan less likely.

Drawing from such contradictory proposals, Giscard d'Estaing and his convention delegates must decide on a coherent approach to reform by next year.

The irony, however, is that the convention's recommendations are just that -- they have no binding force. The final decision on the future shape of the union rests with the heads of state and government, who can, if they wish, ignore the findings that the convention is laboring so mightily to produce.

Given that the tide appears to be running against European integration, does this mean that all the integrationist gains of the last decade are to be swept aside if the bonds imposed by Brussels weaken? Zervakis thinks not.

"If you look at the last 50 years of the union, you will see more setbacks, actually, than successes. And I think this swings like a pendulum, with the pendulum going now more toward the member states than to the intranational idea," Zervakis said.

He suggested this swing will not be permanent, and that in any event, many of the issues facing the EU can only be tackled on the European level -- ensuring the communal process will continue.