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close this bookThe Courier N 185 - March - April 2001 - Dossier: Cinema - Country Reports: Angola (EC Courier, 2001, 76 p.)
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Nice: The future of Europe

by Laurent Duvillier*

*Freelance journalist

Lionel Jospin, Jacques Chirac and Romano Prodi after four days and one entire night of work

The latest European Summit gave birth - by forceps - to a minimalist agreement. The EU which emerged from Nice is not more mature, though it will soon be larger.

The Nice European Summit will be remembered. As the longest in European history. As the most painful. And as a moment of high strategic importance, less than a year before the euro appears in more than 300 million pockets. All at a time when 12 Central and Eastern European countries are knocking on the EU’s door, begging to be let in.

National interests before European ideal

Already creaky with 15 Member States, the postwar institutional system of the European Union would inevitably become ungovernable with 27. Unless it could be made more efficient. But no such far-reaching, crucial reform happened in Nice in the south of France. It was the redistribution of power between the European authorities that galvanised all the activity as everyone fought over who should register the most weight on the European scales. Germany or France? The Netherlands or Belgium? There was more than a little jousting on the Nice promenade. And what was supposed to have been the Summit at which Europe would redesign itself was reduced to hacking out a minimal compromise after days of protracted negotiations and unseemly haggling. It was difficult to find a delegation that was fighting for a European ideal rather than to preserve its position in the Council, Parliament or the Commission.

The prospect of enlarging its borders to take in a lot of little countries disrupted the balance of power originally agreed between the founding countries and on which the executive arm of the Union depends. Had there been no change, the influx of representatives of countries seeking membership would have inflated the European Commission beyond a manageable size. The proposed solution had initially been to have a team limited to 20 Commissioners, but the scenario would have meant a revolving representation of the 27 countries that would by then be members. This proposal was unacceptable to the ‘small’ countries who refused to give up their one Commissioner. The ‘big’ countries each agreed to lose one of theirs only if there was something in return. From 2005, therefore, one Commissioner per Member State. However, there was one advance: at the head of the Commission, the president, if nominated unanimously, has greater room for manoeuvre. By a process of extensive co-decision, the European Parliament also increases its power. Even if there are now 728 seats in the legislature instead of the 700 provided under the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty: the 99 German Euro MPs were not particularly keen on the thought of all those new MPs.

However, in the triangle of community institutions, neither the Commission nor Parliament stoked up as much covetous power-seeking as the Union’s principal decision-making body, the European Council of Ministers. This is the real locus of power in which the ability of each Member State to influence European decisions is determined. Feeling themselves under-represented in the Council, the larger countries demanded changes to the weighting of votes to compensate them for losing one Commissioner each. Everyone agreed on the principle; but everyone fought on the exact form the blocking threshold should take and on vote weighting. Germany, with its population of 82 million, easily the most populous nation in the Union since reunification, wanted a formula that would better reflect its demographic importance. But any such readjustment would have upset the famous Franco-German parity, one of the foundations of the European system. Paris and President Chirac could not swallow this... unless France also benefited from the upgrade. The voraciousness of the ‘big’ powers prompted the ‘smaller’ countries to band together in self-defence. Belgium, Portugal and Finland refused to countenance an oligarchy of European giants capable of blocking any decision. But it did not mean that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had to return empty-handed to Berlin. His consolation prize was a ‘demographic amalgamation’, equivalent to 62% of the population of the European Union, which is necessary to endorse the Council’s votes. A measure that makes it almost impossible to act without Germany.

Turkish demonstrator in the streets of Nice

Slender but real progress

These interminable talks, littered with what some described as impenetrable calculations, would almost have eclipsed the slender but noteworthy progress made at Nice. For example, the Summit sketched the outlines of a future social model, mentioning in particular the need for a modernised social security system, better access to work, and the need to limit poverty and promote equality between the sexes, to name but a few. Six issues to which Member States will have to put the finishing touches - though some of them like to point out that this is optional. Another convincing result is that the mechanism of ‘enhanced cooperation’ launched at the June 1997 Amsterdam Summit has gained in flexibility. From now on, as few as eight countries are allowed to collaborate, without waiting for the consent of the more nervous, in areas as diverse as tax, law, and socio-economic affairs, with the exception of defence policy.

How can the Council of Ministers be safeguarded against a growing paralysis in the event of enlargement? By opting for qualified majority voting instead of unanimous voting in the Union’s executive organ, on as many subjects as possible. There were 40 or so such subjects on the negotiating table at Nice. As few as 30 - and not the most sensitive ones - will be adopted. Berlin will continue to reserve the right to block a decision on the right of veto on asylum policy. Spain will keep its hold on regional aid. Paris will successfully protect cinema and television from commercial negotiations. And London rules out tax and social security questions. The logic of qualified majority voting has therefore not become the norm.

In the aftermath of the painful negotiations, the French presidency tried to make reassuring noises. President Jacques Chirac attempted to defend the agreement - still to be ratified by the 15 national Parliaments for it to become a Treaty - as ‘substantial’ and ‘balanced’. His attempts were in vain. The European press came down like a ton of bricks on the conclusions of the Nice Summit. The French daily Le Monde spoke of a ‘miserable outcome’, to which the Italian Corriere Della Sera responded by comparing the ‘institutional insecurity’ of the Union with the post-electoral fever of the United States. Meanwhile, Spain’s solemn daily newspaper El Pais reported the heated exchanges between the Governments and Heads of State of the 15, particularly those between the ‘large’ and ‘small’ countries. By piling on their acerbic criticisms and grumbling complaints, international commentators are tending to throw the European baby out with the Nice bath-water. Greater forgiveness is shown by the 12 applicant countries who had feared an outright failure, and from Poland to Estonia a sigh of relief went up. Seen from Prague, Warsaw, Budapest or Tallin, the overriding merit of the Nice Summit was that it raised no objection and caused no delay to their membership. The French Riviera did not issue a more mature Union, just a larger one, because the 15 will keep to the timetable set for the entry of Central and Eastern European countries. The countries of the Union have declared their willingness to embrace the newcomers by the end of 2002 and will integrate them from 2004. But as every mountaineer knows, you do not reach the top of a mountain by hesitating at the bottom.

European project: builders wanted

To make progress, the European project has always sought the greatest common denominator among its partners. In Nice it only found the lowest. The strategy of ‘small steps’ has proved to have limits. The latest European Summit has exacerbated the differences between the two visions, the two concepts of the Union that cohabit within its borders. On one side are the majority of member states favourable to a progressive abandonment of national prerogatives to a federal European State. On the other are those member states whose only interest is in extending the free-trade area, its political institutions limited to their simplest expression. After Nice, the Union’s post-euro federal project has broken down and these twin currents can no longer be ignored, contained or stifled. What kind of a Europe do we want tomorrow? What degree of integration are the partners of the Old World willing to accept? What exactly will be the effect of the European project on the concert of nations? A Pandora’s box of questions could be opening up just as 300 million citizens are preparing to adopt the euro. The fifteen (soon to be twenty-seven) will not put off the debate indefinitely. Having obtained the right to draw up a political declaration on the future of the Union at the next summit in Laeken in December 2001, Belgium can now put out a classified advert: ‘European project seeks serious builders. Decorators need not apply.’