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EU: In Modern Europe, Most Roads Lead To Brussels

As the eastward expansion of the European Union gathers force, the links between the EU capital Brussels and the candidate countries will grow stronger in practically all aspects of life. Some welcome this development, while others are not so sure.

Prague, 31 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- "All Roads lead to Rome" is a saying dating from the days of the Roman Empire. It is meant to convey that in those times the city on the Tiber was the center of power. If anything important were to be done, it had to be done through Rome.

Rome's glory has long since faded. In our more prosaic modern times, Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, is the capital of a uniting Europe.

EU officials are careful to avoid any references to a new "empire," with its connotations of forced centralization. The EU is an association of sovereign democratic states that voluntarily place part of their sovereignty in abeyance in order to reap common benefits.

Polish analyst Alexander Smolar, the head of the Stefan Batory Foundation, rejects the notion the EU has much in common with ancient Rome. He said, however, that there is an "interesting" comparison between the modern EU and the early medieval Holy Roman Empire. "The Holy Roman Empire was a very complex structure, with divided sovereignty, with a hierarchical structure of power, from emperor to the kings and landlords. [It was] a very complex power structure with integrating forms," Smolar said.

Smolar sees certain similarities with the present EU. "We can say that the European Union, which is constructed also as a complex structure, has certain powers attached to the pan-European authorities," Smolar said.

But power is shared with the national governments, and through the EU's policy of decentralization, it also trickles down to the regions. There even have been calls to expand the power of regions at the expense of the national governments.

With the first wave of eastward expansion expected to take place in 2004, Brussels will exert an ever greater influence over another 10 countries in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe.

It is not unexpected that in the candidate countries, which have only recently emerged from the shadow of the Soviet Union, some people draw parallels between Brussels and Moscow. That seems to be the case in the Baltic states, whose brief period of interwar independence was ended by Soviet annexation.

Certainly, Brussels has "a finger in every pie," as the saying goes. The union's book of rules, the Aquis Communautaire, is 20,000 pages thick and growing. Laws and regulations cover everything from air and water quality to merger rules for companies and food-safety measures. In one of its latest directives, the European Commission told European zoos to improve conditions for their animals.

Trade was at the heart of the foundation in the 1950s of what is now the union. That preoccupation continues, with myriad laws controlling the internal market. National budgets of member states must likewise be framed within EU guidelines.

The most recent extension of EU activities is in the field of foreign and security policy, including the development of a military force.

This emerging external policy structure, however, is not in the hands of the European Commission. The high representative for foreign policy and security, Javier Solana, answers instead to the Council of Ministers, the body composed of the most senior representatives of the member states. This assures the member states that their national governments will remain in control of this key area, rather than granting the European Commission an autonomous role.

But once a policy has been decided, individual members are expected to follow the common line. For instance, candidate member Romania was recently chided by Brussels for signing unilaterally an agreement with the United States, placing itself under the obligation not to hand over Americans to the new International Criminal Court. The EU supports the court and wants it to have the widest-possible reach.

The future shape of the EU is now being decided by a constitutional convention, which is drawing up its first constitution. It will allocate power among various institutions. According to analyst James Waltson of the American University in Rome, the inclusion in the published draft of the office of an EU president has significance for the smaller member states. "One of the problems which is going to have to be faced is the question of the presidency. If there is going to be an elected president, the smaller countries will lose their six months in power [in the EU's current rotating presidency] to be able to set the agenda and to be able to put their points of view, and that's important," Waltson said.

Returning to the theme of empire, Smolar noted the historical quirk that the territory of the six original founding states of what is now the EU -- France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg -- approximately matches the empire of Charlemagne, the founder of the Holy Roman Empire who was crowned in Rome in the year 800.