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EU Accepts New Members but Must Decide on Future of Political System - 2002-12-17

The European Union is the most integrated region in the world, with open borders, a single market and a common currency. However, now that the European Union is expanding to include 10, mostly former communist countries, questions are being raised as to how it can function effectively and whether it can become as integrated politically as it is economically.

While some other regions are interested in copying the European model, Europe itself is undergoing serious self-examination to figure out just what a regional Union can and should be.

The European Union has come to a crossroads. Within less than a year and a half, it will have 25 members. Now, says German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, is the time to deepen the union, to reform its institutions so as to facilitate decision-making, improve economic integration and speak with a single voice in world affairs.

That is easier said than done. A convention on Europe's future chaired by former French president Valery Giscard D'Estaing is trying to draft a common constitution for the 25 countries by next June. But there is no consensus on just what kind of Europe the member states and their citizens want.

Should the EU member countries relinquish more sovereignty to institutions like the European Commission, which handles the bloc's day-to-day affairs, and the European parliament? Should the European Parliament be given more powers than national parliaments? Should the EU set up the office of a president of Europe?

What most people are agreed on is that the EU should be more democratic and more efficient and that it should try to have a real voice on international issues. But the problem is how to reconcile competing visions on the best way to achieve those goals.

Analyst Kirsty Hughes of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies points out that the EU's basic drawback is that it is a hybrid. "It half looks a little bit like the United States. It's got this common currency and taken away internal borders and so on," she says, "but on the other hand, it's also a bit still like the United Nations. It's still partly an inter-governmental body. And when you get something that's half the U.S. and half the U.N., then trying to see how it can act effectively, especially politically, is very difficult."

The debate within the convention on Europe's future that will increasingly dominate EU affairs during the coming year is between the partisans of more federalism, who want decisions to be made Europe-wide by majority vote, and those who want national governments to have ultimate control over such issues as tax policy, immigration controls, and especially foreign policy.

Analyst Steven Everts, of the Center for European Reform, in London, says it is imperative for the EU to speak with one voice on major international issues. "If European countries want to play an influential role in the world, if Europe's role is not just to follow necessarily American proposals, good and bad, then, the only way to project our interests and to protect our values is by getting together," Mr. Everts says.

Britain and France, who have long-standing foreign policies of their own, are not about to sign up to a single European foreign policy. But Kirsty Hughes of the Center for European Policy Studies says the biggest immediate challenges facing the EU are going to be in the international political arena and that member states will have no choice but to act together to deal with them.

"Maybe trying to be a big voice in the world, equivalent to that of the US, is a step too far," she says. "But perhaps the first step is to say we're going to be a very big regional bloc. What can we do in our own region? How are we going to relate to Russia? To Ukraine? To the Middle East? To North Africa? These are all things right on the EU's doorstep. This enlarged EU can't look inwards. It can't just be a fortress EU. It's going to have to figure out how to deal with those things."

Intricately related to EU policy toward those countries and regions mentioned by Ms. Hughes is the question of immigration. EU countries have taken measures to more closely coordinate their immigration policies and strengthen border controls. Fighting crime, cracking down on potential terrorist activities and keeping out illegal immigrants are all measures that enjoy widespread popular support across Europe, and diplomats say these are areas where EU countries may move to harmonize their policies.

With its decision this month to admit 10 new members and to postpone a review of Turkey's candidacy for two years, the EU has also given itself the thankless task of defining just who belongs in Europe and who does not.

Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, the EU's executive body, says Europe is waiting for Balkan nations to make the necessary progress to eventually become members. But he foresees what he calls a ring of friends, not members, along the EU's outer borders, from Russia to the Black Sea and the southern Mediterranean.

"We must launch now a real debate on the borders of Europe and our relation with our future neighbors," said Mr. Prodi. "Where the borders of Europe lie is something the Europeans must discuss and decide for themselves."

That thinly veiled reference to U.S. pressure on the EU to admit its strategic ally, Turkey, only reflects the feeling among many Europeans that EU expansion is out of control.

So, in the near term, the European Union will have two major issues to deal with - how closely its members should be integrated and how far the union should extend.