European Union Begins 2010 With New Look

The European Union begins 2010 profoundly transformed. A landmark agreement called the Lisbon Treaty is in force, aimed to increase EU clout on the world stage and streamline its decision-making. The first EU permanent president starts work in January, but many Europeans are apathetic about the institution that represents them.



It is holiday season in Brussels.  Belgians and tourists stroll through Christmas markets that sell hot, spiced wine and Belgium's famous waffles.  They pause before an enormous Christmas tree in the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels that is surrounded by elaborately decorated old "guildhalls."

Profound change

These old European rituals are taking place at a time of profound change in Europe.  For the first time, Europeans have a permanent president of the European Union, former Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy, who takes office on January 1.  They have a new EU foreign policy chief and new EU commissioners, and after years of setbacks European governments finally ratified a pact called the Lisbon Treaty to bind the bloc together.

Nowhere are the changes felt more keenly than in Brussels, the administrative center of the 27-member bloc.  Angelo Callant, a Flemish speaking Belgian, says he supports the Lisbon Treaty and he is proud that a Belgian is the EU first president.

"I am for a stronger Europe, so it is a good evolution now ...  Europe has an important job in some issues.  We need a stronger Europe for the economy and other things," Callant said.

French tourist Jacques Tacquoi is also pro-European Union. As a businessman, Tacquoi says, having a European Union and the euro currency makes a difference.  He says he feels more European than French.

Some not interested in treaty

But many Europeans do not share these sentiments.  Survey after survey shows that many are not interested in the Lisbon Treaty or the European institutions representing them.  Turnout for European parliamentary elections last June was a record low, less than half of voting-age Europeans cast their ballots. 

Frederic Micheau has been tracking this apathy as director of studies for the IFOP polling institute in Paris.

Micheau says many Europeans feel the European Union is just a huge bureaucracy.  Most Europeans have never heard of their new EU president Mr. Van Rompuy or their new foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton of Britain.

English tourist Dean Kershaw, visiting the Christmas markets in Brussels with his family, is no fan of the European Union.  He believes it is more of a handicap than an asset.  Kershaw says he is glad Britain is not part of the euro currency zone, which he believes has made things more expensive.

"I think that you can be in Europe without actually being in Europe in a governmental sense," Kershaw said.  "We are an island and we should have our own independence.  [The EU] does OK with countries like Norway and Switzerland [which are not part of the EU] so I cannot see why not for us.  I think we would be a lot richer if we were separate."

Too much meddling? 

European critics argue the European Union meddles too much in their lives.  The European Union is involved in many areas, from setting fishing quotas and agricultural subsidies to punishing companies that violate European antitrust rules.  The EU parliament is gaining increasing powers although it cannot initiate legislation. 

European officials say they are working hard to make people understand what the European Union is all about.  The European Parliament's Paris office, for example, has launched citizens' forums around France to explain what the parliament does.

"I think people do not realize the level of protection they get through [EU] rules.  Especially for consumers.  Especially for environmental matters. If we still have agriculture that is very important on the economic level, it is because of the Common Agricultural Policy," European Parliament spokeswoman, Dominique Robert stated. "So I think there are a lot of issues which would not exist in a positive way if Europe did not exist."

What next?

London School of Economics analyst Iain Begg says the European Union has been focusing on pushing through institutional changes for years.  So no wonder Europeans are underwhelmed.  Now with the Lisbon Treaty in force, Begg expects to see some action. 

"I would suggest 'watch this space' ought to be the watchword here because at last the European Union will get on with doing things rather than the process of how it does things," Begg said.

Begg says the Copenhagen conference is one example of a more vigorous European Union.  While Europe failed to secure a tough and binding climate agreement, he says, its citizens see the European Union as the "good guy" in the greenhouse gas talks - pushing for the kinds of environmental changes they support.  

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