Contradictions of Eurofederalism

Ian Murray seamus2001 at
Sun May 6 18:20:39 PDT 2001 Expansionist dream turns into nightmare for Europe's leaders By Stephen Castle in Brussels 07 May 2001 Internal links

End of the Franco-German love affair leaves little hope of a new beginning The small Swedish town of Nyköping got a glimpse into Europe's future yesterday, and it involved a long and elaborate lunch.

Just after midday, foreign ministers from the 15 member states converged on a local restaurant to be seated at an even larger table than normal ­ one extended to accommodate colleagues from the 13 nations vying to join the club.

Meetings on this scale have been tried only a few times before and do not bode well for advocates of efficient government. As one of those present at a recent gathering of finance ministers in Malmö put it: "On that occasion we had not only EU ministers and those from candidate countries but central bank governors as well ­ there were almost 60 people in the room. Do the calculation for yourself: if everyone speaks for a couple of minutes, it takes two-and-a-half hours just to go around the table."

Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, is passionately committed to Europe's expansion and yesterday's meeting was held in the home town of Anna Lindh, the Swedish Foreign Minister whose husband, Bo, is the local mayor. But even before lunch began, the imminent arrival of the 13 applicant countries set existing members against each other.

Alarmed at the threat of an influx of cheap labour, Germany and Austria backed European Commission proposals to prevent the free movement of eastern workers for up to seven years ­ a suggestion which has caused anger, particularly in Poland.

Meanwhile Spain, backed by Greece and Portugal, hinted it can only accept the Commission plan if it wins guarantees that its lucrative regional funding will continue after enlargement.

The EU has become a victim of its success. So keen have countries been to join since the Treaty of Rome in 1957 that the history of EU is one of almost constant expansion.

While Europe has undergone successive enlargements it has adapted rather than re-thought its structures. And what worked for six countries and proved manageable with 12 has brought a union of 15 close to sclerosis. Now a further 12 countries are applying to join, 13 if Turkey ­ yet to begin formal negotiations ­ is included.

Take one basic issue, language. Yesterday's meeting in Sweden was one of only a few ministerial meetings to operate just in English and French. But such an arrangement is controversial in Germany and Austria.There have even been boycotts in protest. The result is that an array of language regimes operate for meetings in Brussels; sometimes British diplomats speak French and their French counterparts speak English.

When Britain hosted a conference on enlargement in London several years ago, Madrid insisted on Spanish translation, refusing the offer of a "whispering interpreter" by the side of its premier. But offering Spanish without Italian, Greek, Swedish and a host of other languages is diplomatically impossible so, in the end, the conference offered translation between 22 languages.

The European Parliament operates with interpretation into each of the 11 official EU tongues. Stacks of documents pile up. The system still just about works, but who can translate Portuguese into Latvian or Bulgarian into Finnish?

At the very least there will have to be more two- or even three-stage translations via English, French or German ­ with a growing risk of misinterpretation.

Language is just one small side of Europe's growing complexity. The EU's activities are divided into three different categories or "pillars", and its decision-making processes are complex; one procedure, known as comitology, is so complicated that even officials are often left baffled.

Meanwhile a piece of European legislation normally takes two to three years to pass through its various stages before being handed back to national governments for incorporation into national law (usually another two years).

Some proposed directives have been blocked internally for years ­ or even decades ­ and in sectors such as financial services there are attempts to bypass the normal structures to ensure that legislation is not outdated by the time it reaches the statute book.

It is a tribute to the strength and ingenuity of the EU's technicians that things work as well as they do. But slowly the Europe's leaders are coming to terms with the implications of a potential doubling of membership, a change which can only complicate a machinery already of Heath Robinson complexity. There are fundamental questions to be addressed: about the objectives of the EU, about the relationship between the different layers of power and about democracy and accountability.

According to Hubert Vedrine, France's urbane Foreign Minister, the psychological turning point was the Helsinki summit in 1999, when EU leaders officially approved the idea of enlarging the EU. The implications of the change ­ due to take place by 2004 ­ was brought home, predictably, over lunch, as extra tables were brought in to seat all 28 delegations.

(The impact was particularly stark for the French, who have always seen the EU as their creation After three speeches in English, the French President spoke in his native tongue ­ and all but one of the leaders from applicant countries reached for their translation headsets.

When Europe's leaders met in Nice last December, the event stretched into its fifth day, proving how just how difficult it is to reach agreement even among 15.

That event concentrated minds on the need for more fundamental reform and paved the way for a bigger rethink, which is now due in 2004. But while there is consensus that things cannot carry on like this, there could barely be less agreement on where the EU should be heading.

Gerhard Schröder's big idea, outlined last week, is one of several opening bids from national capitals which want to fit the EU better into domestic political parameters.

Last year Jacques Chirac called for a hard core of member states to forge integration more quickly, leaving other countries in the slow lane. Tony Blair then outlined his vision of an enlarged EU with a second chamber added to the European Parliament, although one made up of national politicians who would guard against encroachments from Brussels.

The latest German plans have been interpreted wrongly by British Eurosceptics as a plan for a "superstate".

While they would boost the role of the European Commission, they would also return key areas of policy such as agriculture and regional policy to national or ­ in the German case ­ the regional government, the länder.

Peter Ludlow, founding director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, argues this sets the debate back.

The Germans, he points out, are reopening a fundamental issue: whether the nation state or regional government is the basic building block of the EU; whether decision-making might have to accommodate "not just 25 or 26 member states ­ but perhaps 250 units".

Britain and France are resolutely opposed to Mr Schröder's thinking, though their instincts on the merits of further European integration could hardly be further apart.

Can such starkly competing ideas from Berlin, Paris and London ever be reconciled? The question hung over the lunch in Nyköping yesterday as the applicant countries pitched in with their contributions.

But at least the debate has begun, and not before time.

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