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EU: Period Of Ever-Increasing Integration Appears To Have Passed

An era is coming to an end with the expansion next year of the European Union to include 10 new members, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. That's because it appears the EU cannot absorb so many countries and still retain an impetus for integration. The current Convention on the Future of Europe is struggling to create a coherent constitution for what will become an unprecedented grouping of 25 nations. In addition to the diluting influence of the newcomers, current members look set to neutralize the convention's impulse to create institutions that would allow for further integration.

Prague, 4 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Valery Giscard D'Estaing, head of the convention drawing up a constitution for the expanded European Union, is expressing his frustration at the lack of bold progress toward further European integration.

In receiving the prestigious Charlemagne Prize for fostering European unity last week, Giscard said Europe will be "damned" to lose its economic and cultural vigor unless it answers the question of where it is heading. The time has come, he suggested, to decide if Europe is to be merely a free-trade zone or something more, something he called "a community of destiny."

His comments come against the background of his failure to push through bold measures at the Convention on the Future of Europe that would have created a tighter, more unified bloc.

As Dan Keohane, an analyst with the Center for European Reform in London put it, the draft constitution, due to be formally presented to EU leaders in less than three weeks, is not a great leap forward. "It's very disappointing [for the integrationists], because it is not the kind of radical changes in terms of boosting the role of the European Commission in the EU's life as much as they would have liked. The member states remain very much in control," he said.

Members like staunchly anti-integrationist Britain, plus Spain and the Nordic nations, have resisted many proposals. One key provision of the draft constitution is that it retains the right of national veto in the area of foreign policy. Integrationists had been hoping to move this area on to qualified majority voting, which would have made it easier for the EU to speak with a clear and powerful voice.

In a recent speech in Prague, Giscard D'Estaing noted the strong public support for such a common EU foreign policy. "There is a demand for a [common] foreign policy, and for the creation of a common space of liberty, security, and justice. And therefore we must offer our fellow citizens a new Europe, one for the 21st century, a Europe turned toward the future," he said.

That, however, is apparently not to be.

In addition, Giscard D'Estaing's plan to create a powerful EU foreign minister responsible for formulating policy at the European Commission has been watered down. Instead, the draft now foresees that the EU foreign minister would be answerable to member states, not the European Commission, and would therefore be kept "on a leash."

Giscard D'Estaing's other key pro-integration measure -- a single, overall EU president to replace the current six-month rotating presidency -- is under fire from small member countries. They see it as a move favoring the big states.

Analyst James Waltson of the American University in Rome questions the accuracy of this assumption, however. "The presumption is that if there is going to be a president who remains in office for 2 1/2 years, renewable for a further 2 1/2 years, then it will be the big countries that will decide on it. But I'm not sure this will necessarily happen," Waltson said.

Contributing to the difficulties, Giscard D'Estaing knows that the 10 nations waiting to enter the EU are broadly nonintegrationist. After long decades under Soviet influence, many of them are cool toward giving up political sovereignty to Brussels. The 10 new members are Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Malta, and Cyprus.

Another factor working against progress is that the spirit of goodwill -- a subtle, essential ingredient in building the European project -- is at its lowest point in years. The U.S.-led war in Iraq revealed the deep fissures between key EU members like Germany and France on the one side and Britain and Spain on the other.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld crystallized an important distinction between existing EU members and the newcomers when he referred to the "old" and "new" Europe -- the difference being that the "new" is generally more positively disposed to the United States.

In this context, European Commission President Romano Prodi told Poles recently they can't keep their "purse" in Europe and their hearts elsewhere. For its part, Poland has felt the need to deny that it will be a "Trojan horse" inside the EU.

Giscard D'Estaing is to present his draft constitution to EU leaders at a summit in Greece on 20 June. He has been hoping to present a strong, single document to optimize the chances of the draft constitution being accepted as a whole. But with disagreements at the convention continuing, he may be forced to present the summit with a series of options.

That would set the scene for haggling among EU leaders and increase the risk that the end result will be a series of awkward compromises.