Next December, EU heads of states will meet in Nice at a regular summit, known as the European Council. Yet, this will not be just another summit. The Nice event comes at a time when the Europe is called on to the shape its future into the 21st century.
Not an easy task, the main reason being that the EU is facing a number of significant challenges. Its expansion to Eastern Europe is just one of them, even if it is the most easily discernible one. Globalisation, both in economic and social terms, is another challenge to be taken into account. It is in the same context that the international weight of the EU has to be substantially enhanced and a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) ought to be hammered out. And this is nothing but the top of a long list of major issues to be tackled by the EU in the years to come.
Given the significance of the forthcoming summit, it might be a good idea to dwell for a moment on what happened so far on the road to Nice. The initial debate on the summit agenda brought to the surface two different schools of thought as to what is to be done discussed in Nice. One of them aspires to cover topics all the way from the global challenges in the new century to citizens’ daily problems. The proponents of the second path – who proved more efficient at the time and got the upper hand – succeeded in restricting the agenda to what has become known as the Amsterdam leftovers. More specifically, that would include the future number of European commissioners, the number of member states’ votes in the Council of Ministers and, last but not least, the expanded application of qualified majority voting, while strictly defining the areas where unanimity will be retained.
Last spring, however, Yoschka Fischer’s speech on his vision of a federal Europe resounded deep down to the very foundations of the EU and its member states. Subsequent statements made by leading European politicians, such as Jacques Chirac’s reference to a European constitution, brought back to the fore the phantom of federation or at least the co-operation of those who can and are willing to go ahead in certain areas. One way or another, the Nice summit agenda has de facto been enlarged beyond any expectations.
On the other hand, much as the whole debate might appear timely and stimulating, there is a stark contrast between talks of a federal Europe and euro-scepticism, which is riding high on the continent these days. Therefore, Europe’s political leaders had to come up with less controversial catchphrases which would not be outright reminders of the ‘f-word’, but would allude to enhanced flexibility all the same. This is how the ‘reinforced co-operation’ concept was inserted into the broader political agenda.
The fetters of euro-scepticism
This is where Europe stands at the moment, on the road to Nice and a meaningful discussion on enhancing its role in world politics. Ironically, however, the biggest hurdle the EU has to jump over is a domestic one, its inherent euro-scepticism. The outcome of the recent referendum in Denmark has illustrated the underlying cause of a tug-of-war between strictly national priorities and the common destiny of EU member states. Much as I respect the verdict of the Danish voters, I am afraid the opponents of the euro focused excessively on minor details, while missing the big point – Europe’s future.
What are the issues to be confronted headlong? Let’s start from the Amsterdam leftovers, which are on the Nice agenda anyway. These rather technical questions have caused heated debates on two levels at least. On the one hand, between small and large member states and, on the other hand, between representativity and efficiency in decision-making. Personally, I would opt for a broader application of qualified majority voting, but that would require certain safeguards. For instance, CFSP matters could be resolved much faster with the abolition of unanimity, but that would necessitate the provision of guarantees for the security of common EU borders.
Similarly, I would not object to seeing more efficient EU institutions – including the functions of the Commission and the decision-making process at the Council of Ministers – but that could by no means be at the expense of small member states. Any federation model displays two major components – population and entities. The US is a case in point, with the Congress representing the country’s population and the Senate comprising two representatives of each state.
I am quite convinced that these issues can be agreed on by the EU member states. In any case, it would be much easier to get over the Amsterdam leftovers, if the whole discussion is placed within a federation context. And this is exactly where the Nice negotiators should live up to the occasion, because that is the big issue, no matter how controversial.
What’s wrong with a federal Europe?
It is slightly awkward that the on-going debate about a federal Europe should be caused by Mr Fischer, the chairman of a rather small German party, and not by the leaders of Europe’s Socialists and Christian Democrats. Actually, what Mr. Fischer did was simply rekindle this debate, for the very first European politician to hint at a ‘European federation’ was none else but former European Commission president Jacque Delors in 1991 in Maastricht. However, this tricky ‘f-word’ was soon to be deleted from the official vernacular of European politicians, shunned away by growing euro-scepticism and even ‘euro-cowardice’.
Yet, is Fischer’s suggestion really so upsetting?
His principal idea seems to be the formation of a politically unitary entity on the basis of a new EU treaty. Quite sensibly then, he argues, this new entity should have a clear-cut constitution, setting out who does what at national and federal level. What follows next, just as sensibly, is setting up all the federal institutions, such as a parliament, a government and a president. Not that Europe could ever become an accurate copy of the US, but it is true the US draws a lot of its advantages from the federal model it has enjoyed ever since it appeared on the world map.
How feasible are Fischer’s ideas right now?
As mentioned above, the euro-scepticism drive has made most European leaders back off from the federation platform and enhancing ‘reinforced co-operation’ has become the fashion in some of Europe’s biggest capitals. Given the current confusion in Europe, the only realistic way out of the impasse is perhaps somewhat unorthodox, but high politics has always called for a creative and imaginative attitude. Therefore, the discussion on ‘reinforced co-operation’ is not necessarily a bad thing. The tricky thing about it is whether it will lead to a closer intergovernmental co-operation or the consolidation of a federation prospect for the EU.
If it is a subtle way of circumventing the federal prospect, it will no doubt intensify confusion even more. For instance, who will be in charge of the EU’s foreign relations, Commissioner Chris Patten or Mr. Javier Solana (often referred to as ‘Mr. CSFP’), whose institution has no less than 13 secretariats? The action of the EURO-11 council (now EURO-12, since Greece’s accession to the common currency) has been rather perplexing as well. Is it the EURO council or the European Commission to decide on major economic policies of the EU?
The way out of this maze would be to reinforce the two genuine EU institutions, the Commission and the Parliament. This is precisely why President Prodi, a strong proponent of the federal path, has firmly stated that he would not accept any trimming of the role of the Commission, through new institutions or intergovernmental alliances. Being a MEP, I feel just as strongly about the need to further consolidate the role of the European Parliament.
Turning the tables on euro-scepticism
Now that the Nice summit is some two months away, it is not impertinent to ask ourselves: will Nice be a success? To put it rather bluntly, I don’t expect any spectacular results to come out of it. Few doubt that, once the EU leaders meet there, there will be plenty of arm-twisting and a massive tug-of-war between national priorities and a common European future. No doubt, it will take creativity and imagination to figure out exactly how a common European future can accommodate member states’ individual priorities. That will, ultimately, be the biggest challenge for the EU during the current IGC.