PARIS — In December 2000, the 15 members of the European Union signed the Nice Treaty, which was designed to remove the obstacles to the proposed expansion of the EU by 10 countries — eight from the former Soviet bloc plus plus Cyprus and Malta. Like all treaties, it had to be ratified. Fourteen governments decided to leave this task to their parliaments. Ireland preferred to call a referendum.
Ireland has benefited greatly from its entry into the union. Thanks to the EU aid that it has received over the years, it has gone from being a country that once seemed destined to suffer from endless misery and mass emigration to one that has a gross national product equivalent its former British ruler.
It was thus a great surprise when Ireland’s “no” vote against the treaty carried last year by 54 percent — enough to block the EU enlargement process. But deciding to try again, the Dublin government launched an intense, costly campaign that in the end spurred Ireland to give up its 80-year-old foreign policy of strict neutrality. In turn, fellow EU members pledged to respect the island’s neutrality.
Only a minority of those who had voted against the referendum in the first round changed their mind the second time around. The 63-percent “yes” vote was largely due to the fact that many Irish who had abstained from voting in the first round now decided to support their government.
The “catastrophe” that EU Commission President Romano Prodi had forecast if the “no” vote again prevailed has been averted. This does not mean, however, that the road to a “great Europe” is now clear. A number of problems still exist:
* EU voting rules will have to be modified to prevent a single member from blocking an agreement supported by other members. Hence provisions in the Nice Treaty give more power to large countries and redistribute seats in Parliament, where new rules will be introduced to redefine the meaning of a “qualified majority.”
Small EU countries feel that their rights have been reduced. They don’t appear appeased by the fact that the few member states presently entitled to appoint two members of the commission will lose one of them. There is undoubtedly a growing split between the big members — Germany, Britain, France, Spain and Italy — and the small members.
* When 12 EU member states agreed to adopt the euro, then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stressed the need to prevent any of them from threatening, through the adoption of lax fiscal and economic policies, the rigor that allowed the creation of the monetary union. This lead to the adoption of a stability pact forbidding the signatories, under the threat of heavy fines, to let their budget deficits and debt exceed certain limits.
But this was agreed upon in a time of rapid development. With European economic growth dramatically slowing, Germany is now unable to keep its word, France refuses to comply with the requirements, Prodi himself — with the backing of the majority of the Strasbourg Assembly — doesn’t hesitate to describe the pact as “stupid.”
* The union’s 15 members have accepted a plan for an EU constitution and have asked for a special “convention” headed by former French President Giscard d’Estaing to lead the project. But even if the principle of electing a president to a five-year term has been agreed upon, the question of which members will take part in voting has yet to be answered. The same can be said for the appointment of a common foreign minister, as advocated by various countries. Will he or she be picked by the president or by the commission?
* The formulation of a common foreign and security policy was decided upon in 1993. Now an army of some 60,000 men must be created. There are many points of convergence on issues concerning Yugoslavia, the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court. But as developments in the Iraqi crisis show, any major disagreement creates obstacles to the plan to create a European military force.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair is determined to give his country’s relationship with the United States high priority under all circumstances. French President Jacques Chirac has gone as far as to threaten to use his nation’s U.N. Security Council veto to prevent U.S. President George W. Bush from submitting a resolution allowing him to use military force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein without first putting the move to a new Security Council vote.
This presents an occasion to wonder whether France and Britain will ever be ready to give up their Security Council privileges. Blair recently spoke of the EU as a “superpower.” This would be a great achievement not only for the Europeans but for the whole world if it was realized. But at this point it remains far from reality.
* Facing increasingly gloomy economic prospects, almost all countries these days face severe financial difficulties. Most EU members are attempting to reduce their contributions to the common budget. Pressed to accept a revision of the Common Agricultural Policy, of which it is the main beneficiary, France asked for an end to the huge reduction in Britain’s EU contribution that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher obtained in 1984. Britain replied that it was not negotiable.
These are but a few of the areas in which disagreement exists. In spite of the Irish yes vote, it would be something of a miracle if at the next EU summit, scheduled to take place this December in Copenhagen, members agree to let 10 membership candidates join the EU in due time. No wonder that, as various polls show, the move toward a greater EU is losing its appeal.
The truth is that it’s probably impossible for so many countries, whose habits and traditions differ so much, to truly unite in the absence of politicians worthy of leading such an enormous undertaking. No wonder more and more voices are calling for a resurrection of the Franco-German special relationship, which for half a century provided the engine that drove European economic growth.
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