At its make-or-break summit last weekend in Nice, the European Union bent. Faced with the need to reform to accommodate new members and new responsibilities, European heads of state produced the inevitable compromises and fudges. Some choices were made; others, predictably, were put off. Still, the ground has been prepared for expansion. But just as important is the new dynamic that has been exposed at the heart of the EU.
If the community is to double in size, as planned, then it has to change. Voting rules and rights have to be modified if the Union is not to collapse under the weight of new members. The willingness of governments to alter cherished procedures and cede more sovereignty to the Brussels bureaucracy is the test of their commitment to real European union. In the abstract, that sounds easy; in reality, it is extremely difficult — which is why last weekend’s compromises are to be applauded.
Key questions concerned membership in the European Commission, voting rights within the Council of Ministers, national vetoes, adding new members, and the ability of governments to pursue special projects without the rest of the Union. The issues are linked, which made compromise a little easier: A concession in one area matched a “victory” in another.
The most contentious issue concerned voting rights within the Council of Ministers. Germany had demanded more votes to reflect its size — it has 23 million more citizens than the next largest member. That would violate a founding principle of equality between France and Germany and, by introducing a correlation between size and votes, open the door to more disputes in the future.
The final agreement acknowledges the importance of size. It gives Germany, Britain, France and Italy 29 votes each in an expanded Union. Spain will have 27; the Netherlands, 13; Greece, Belgium and Portugal, 12; Sweden and Austria, 10; Denmark, Finland and Ireland, seven; and Luxembourg, four. Among candidate countries, Poland, the largest, will have 27 votes, Romania, 14; the Czech Republic and Hungary, 12; Bulgaria, 10; Slovakia and Lithuania, seven; Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia, Cyprus, four apiece; and Malta, three.
Germany’s demand for more influence was met in two ways. First, the leaders agreed to a veto: Council decisions must have the support of at least 62 percent of the total population of an enlarged Europe. In other words, by acting together, Germany, France and Britain can block any decision.
Second, Germany was given increased representation in the European Parliament. Berlin will have 99 seats in the new Parliament (out of 738), while Britain, France and Italy will each have 74.
A similar compromise allowed participants to claim victory on reform of the European Commission. Currently, big countries have two commissioners. They will give up their second commissioner in 2005, and the size of the Commission will increase to 27. Do the math: Fifteen states and another 15 possible entrants means that changes have to be made, but no final number was fixed at Nice.
On other issues, the heads of state agreed to cut the number of policy areas that require a unanimous vote, trimming them from 70 to 59. Passions can still prevail over principle, however. They also let states go forward with projects without all members. Finally, they agreed that the door will open to members in 2004 and the candidates — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Malta — can join as soon as they meet membership criteria.
French President Jacques Chirac, the host, declared that “substantial progress” had been made. He also conceded that there is much more to be done. Some of that will be handled by the intergovernmental conference that will meet in 2004. In the meantime, French diplomats must repair some of the damage to their image. Mr. Chirac has been strongly criticized for putting his country’s interests before those of the EU. Nationalism is to be expected, but the chair is supposed to be above the fray.
The most important revelation is the new balance of power within the Franco-German axis, which has been the foundation of and motor for European unity. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s demands depart from the tradition of strict equality between Paris and Berlin. He demanded and won the intergovernmental conference in 2004. Even Mr. Schroeder’s compromises made it clear that he gave from a position of strength. Accommodating that new assertiveness may well prove to be Europe’s biggest challenge in the years ahead.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.