The European Union is on the verge of a major transformation, spurred on by a series of recent events. A summit of EU leaders in Brussels agreed on financial arrangements for the union's eastward expansion. The EU's ongoing constitutional convention published for the first time a draft European Constitution. And there was the final ratification of the Nice Treaty, setting out institutional arrangements for an expanded union.
Prague, 30 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- If things run according to plan over the next year and a half, the European Union is set for the biggest transformation in its 50-year history.
That's because several significant pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle have just fallen into place.
One is the agreement at the summit of EU leaders in Brussels on 25 October on how to finance the first wave of eastward expansion, which is designed to take in 10 new members by 2004. That agreement ends tension in the union, at least for the time being, over how to apply the enormously expensive Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to the new members.
The second factor is the publication by the EU's Constitutional Convention of a draft constitution. The draft was unveiled by former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing on 28 October. It foresees a much stronger executive European Commission and the creation of the Office of European President. The draft is sure to provoke heated arguments among EU members, some of whom, like Germany, favor strong powers at the center, while others, like Britain, want to see key powers remain with the individual member governments.
However, the fact that the draft constitution has actually been published marks a step forward in EU affairs, regardless of the direction the document eventually takes.
The third factor is the approval by EU member Ireland last week of the Nice Treaty. Ireland was the last of the 15 members to ratify the treaty, which sets out the institutional arrangements to accommodate incoming members.
Taken together, these three developments clear a path toward the transformation of the EU into a 25-member bloc with a strengthened framework for its activities.
However, even after the reorganization, EU decision making will be far from fast. With the present 15 members and a moderately strong commission at the center, decision making is tortuous. With 25 members, even though opportunities for use of the national veto will be reduced, arriving at conclusions on key issues will be at least as difficult.
Stefan Maarteel, a Belgian-based independent political analyst, says it's the task of the new constitution to clarify the decision-making process and responsibilities: "What's important is that it must be made very clear where responsibilities lie, because that's not all too clear at the moment. The biggest problem Europe now has is that everything is so vague."
The way the decision was reached on the key matter of extending farm-support payments to new members shows the lopsidedness of the present methods. The basis of the deal was worked out at private talks at a Brussels hotel between German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac. The summit later accepted the Franco-German proposal, without significant input by other members.
Essentially, the agreement keeps the CAP in its unreformed state for several more years. That reflects a compromise by reform advocate Germany in favor of France, whose farmers benefit most from the CAP. But it angered other reformers like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who have sought a drastic slimming down of the CAP, which consumes almost half the EU's entire budget.
Blair reportedly had a big argument with Chirac, and he left the summit before it officially ended. That seems a typically messy example of EU decision making. And it was a decision by two of the union's most powerful countries taken almost without reference to the other, less powerful members.
Although the Nice Treaty makes efforts to streamline the decision making process, there are fears that it does not eradicate the type of bias whereby the big countries could bring their influence to bear on the smaller members.
Analyst James Waltson of the American University in Rome puts it this way: "Of course, there is that risk, and if the EU just becomes a big boys' club then...I was talking to a Portuguese diplomat the other day who was making it very clear that if it is going to be just a place where the Germans and French -- or even the Germans, the French, the Italians, and British -- do their business, and everyone else has to tag along, they would not be very happy about it."
Waltson also refers to the coming constitution, saying it must address this problem, which was left unresolved by Nice: "The type of control that the constitution must aim at providing, to allow the voices of the smaller countries [to be heard,] is essential."
An Irish member of the European Parliament, Patricia McKenna, notes the Nice Treaty allows for the first time a concept called "enhanced cooperation."
Under "enhanced cooperation," a group of at least eight member countries can forge ahead with increased integration in areas of their choice, leaving the others behind. McKenna argues that this will create new dividing lines and inequalities in Europe: "So the faster and more progressive or more wealthy countries can forge ahead at a faster speed using the EU institutions, which are supposed to be there for all. We think this is going to divide Europe in the future."
It's natural to assume that the countries most likely to use enhanced cooperation on a large scale are those which have successfully integrated with one another in the past -- countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and probably France. Such a group of wealthy nations, acting together as a "core" EU, could be expected to exercise a powerful influence over smaller, individual members of the expanded union.
In sheer voting terms in the decision-making Council of Ministers, however, such a group could be overruled by a coalition of like-minded states that broadly opposes more integration. Such a coalition could bring together Britain, Spain, Sweden, and probably Poland, and be used in cases where qualified majority voting has replaced the use of consensus.
But the key decisions will continue to be made by individual governments and their leaders. So rows like that between Blair and Chirac will continue to be a part of life in the EU.