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EU Constitution Failure Not a Major Crisis, Say Europe's Leaders - 2003-12-22

Leaders of 25 old and future members of the European Union failed to reach an agreement on the European Constitution after a recent summit in Brussels. Spain and Poland rejected the new voting system that favors the most populous countries, including Germany, France and Great Britain. VOA's Jaroslaw Anders looks at the reasons and possible consequences of the dispute.

According to its authors, the new European Constitution was designed to simplify the structure of the European Union and democratize its decision-making process. The Europeans hoped to have the document ready by May 2004, when it will accept 10 new members with 75 million people -- mostly from the former Soviet bloc.

But Spain and Poland opposed the new system of voting in the European Council, which is the main EU lawmaking body. They wanted to keep the system agreed upon at the EU summit held in Nice in the year 2000.

The Nice Treaty gave each of the two countries 27 votes in the European Council -- only two votes less than the largest members, including France and Germany. Anthony Gooch, spokesman of the EU Delegation here in Washington, says the system proposed in the constitution was to correct mistakes made in Nice. “The vast majority of those present at Nice and the vast majority of observers consider Nice to be excessively complicated, even an unworkable basis on which to operate in the long term,” said Mr. Gooch.

Under the proposed European Constitution discussed in Brussels, the Council would pass EU laws by a simple majority of countries as long as they represented at least 60 percent of the EU population. Some defenders of the new "double majority" voting system say the Nice Treaty gave mid-size countries, such as Poland and Spain, a disproportionately powerful position. Without mentioning names, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said that two countries had been "unable to change their way of thinking and acting."

The critics ask why Spain and Poland were willing to block the constitutional treaty for what looks like their selfish, national interest. But the ambassador of the Republic of Poland here in Washington, Przemyslaw Grudzinski, replies that the question could easily be reversed: “What has made other European key players, like Germany and France, insist on a new, non-treaty-based scheme of European voting? This summit was a consensus-driven meeting. One was supposed to reach a consensus among all 25 countries in order to reach endorsement of the new European constitutional arrangement.”

Ambassador Grudzinski says the European Constitution is a serious matter that needs more time for negotiations and compromise. He adds that Poland's claim for a strong position within the union should not be treated as proof of Polish disregard for the interests of the united Europe: “Europe is a common value that cannot be overestimated, and Poland deeply cares about the future of Europe. Therefore, we are so insistent and stubborn.”

Participants of the EU summit in Brussels agreed to postpone the adoption of the European Constitution rather than strike an imperfect deal. France strongly supports the "double majority" voting system. Deputy Director of the Press Office at the French Embassy in Washington, Agnes von Dermuhll, says French President Jacques Chirac believes the controversy would not hinder the EU enlargement in 2004.

“What the president of the French Republic said,” says Ms. Dermuhll, “is that we should never confuse speed with haste, and we shouldn't ever seek an easy solution for the sake of finding an agreement at the cost of efficiency.” Echoing the words of the Polish ambassador, she also stresses that “the constitution for Europe is a very serious matter,” and the European Union must take its time to get it right.

The conflict between Poland and Spain on one hand and France and Germany on the other has been aggravated by the first two countries strongly supporting the American-led war in Iraq and the other two opposing it. Michael Mandelbaum, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the conflict about the voting system revealed a political dilemma the expanding European Union will have to resolve in the near future. He says Poland and Spain spoke for many medium and small European countries worried about Franco-German hegemony.

Mr. Mandelbaum believes Poland and Spain opposed the new voting system not only “because they wish to enhance their own power, not only because they have been promised considerable power by the formula agreed to at Nice in the year 2000, but also because they feared that the new formula being proposed by the French and the Germans would be a charter for pushing them around, for Franco-German domination of the European Union.”

In Mr. Mandelbaum’s view, smaller countries of the union were also put on guard by the way the French and the Germans have recently decided to disregard the European Union's Stability and Growth Pact, which requires that the countries using the euro must keep their budget deficits below 3% of gross domestic product.

On the other hand, says Mr. Mandelbaum, Franco-German predominance has always been a motor of European integration: “The European project has been driven forward for the last 50 years by Franco-German cooperation, by a kind of joint hegemony between those two neighboring countries. And if their power is diminished, there is a serious question as to whether not only further integration will be possible, but whether this expanded European Union can function at all. So Europe faces a real dilemma.”

Michael Mandelbaum believes the problem would exist even if countries like Poland and Spain were not promised a generous representation under the Nice Treaty.

Another expert on European affairs, Professor Esther Brimmer from Johns Hopkins University here in Washington, believes both sides can claim they simply try to advance democracy in the European Union. Poland and Spain demand a stronger voice for smaller member states, while Germany and France say the new system better reflects the will of EU citizens. But Dr. Brimmer adds that “each one could also be faulted for not having a comprehensive view of how to move the European Union forward.”

Germany and France have recently revived the concept of a "two-speed Europe”, with some countries integrating faster than others. Some analysts worry such a move may “formalize” the present division within the European Union. Michael Calingaert, guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, thinks that different-speed integration is a possibility, but it is hard to imagine what form it may take. “I think in the immediate future not much is going to happen,” says Mr. Calingaert. “Concentration will be on trying to resume discussions that failed. But over a longer time there will be some kind, or some kinds, of arrangements that will include some members and not others.”

All sides of the debate stress that the failure to adopt the new European Constitution before the 2004 enlargement is a setback, but not a major crisis. Anthony Gooch of the EU Delegation here in Washington, points out that the EU summit in Brussels achieved considerable progress despite the EU Constitution failure. Representatives of Poland and France, as well as EU authorities in Brussels, agree that for now the process of integration and enlargement of the European Union must go on without the European Constitution.

The task of moving the issue forward now passes on to Ireland, which takes over the six-month EU presidency in January, and later to the Netherlands, which will succeed Ireland in July 2004. Polish Ambassador Grudzinski points out that in the past, smaller countries of the union were often able to hammer out clever and imaginative solutions to problems that stymied more powerful European players.