Wed, 17 Dec 2003

The battle for Europe: Political integration or free trade

Ian Davidson, Adviser, European Policy Centre, Brussels, Project Syndicate

The European summit in Brussels this weekend was intended to equip the European Union with a constitution that would enable it to handle the challenges posed by the admission of ten new member states next spring. Instead, the summit's breakdown may be an advance warning that this enlargement could prove to be so disruptive as to lead, not to a benign transformation of the EU, but to its radical dislocation.

On past precedent, the odds ought to be against any dramatic disaster. The EU has confronted many political crises in the past, some much more severe than this one. On every previous occasion, member states preferred compromise to rupture.

Chances are they will do so again. Indeed, downplaying the gravity of the latest crisis is easy: One can argue that the immediate cause of the breakdown, when examined closely, is not really all that serious.

The crux of the problem is that the draft Constitution would give the EU a new and much simpler method of taking majority votes in the Council of Ministers. Under the method adopted three years ago at the EU's Nice summit, each member state has a certain number of votes, weighted according to population, but small countries are protected by having proportionally more votes than big countries.

This system is known as Qualified Majority Vote. A majority decision requires 50 percent of the member states, about 72 percent of their weighted votes, and 62 percent of the EU's total population.

The proposed new system would do away with weighted votes. Member states would each have one vote, and a majority decision would require 50 percent of the member states and 60 percent of the population of the EU.

This new system is simpler and more comprehensible; arguably, it is also more democratic. But in arithmetic terms it is less favorable to the smaller countries, since they lose their weighting advantage. It is much less favorable to Spain and Poland, since the weighting they received at Nice is almost as great as that of Germany, even though heir population are only half as large.

This was the trigger for Saturday's breakdown: Spain and Poland refused to surrender the voting privileges they received at Nice. But if this were the real reason for the breakdown, one would expect it to be resolved by detailed haggling over the voting arrangements. But it seems probable that the argument over majority voting rules is really a stalking horse for deeper differences about the future of the EU.

One (unstated) difference is about money. The Poles claim -- self-righteously -- that they are representing not their own national interest, but that of all the smaller member states. The facts tell a different story.

Two-thirds of the EU budget goes to agriculture and the development of poor regions. Spain, together with Portugal, Greece, and Ireland, has been an enormous beneficiary of the budget on both counts; and Poland, another poor country, wishes to join the gravy train.

Everyone knows that reform of the farm policy is overdue by several decades; and reform means cutting farm subsidies. But reform won't happen without the right majority in the Council of Ministers. So obviously Spain and Poland do not want to give up their voting privileges there.

But the more serious differences are political. What kind of EU do the member states -- present and future -- want? Do they want a politically integrated EU? In the long run, do they want something approaching a federal Union? Or do they want a free- trade area based on some form of inter-governmental arrangement?

These questions have become much more acute with the impending mega-enlargement, partly because of the sheer weight of numbers of newcomers, but mainly because the central European accession countries are essentially strangers to the learning process of integration that the existing members have gone through these past 50 years. Moreover, that learning process has been seriously contaminated.

In 1950, when the EU was born, the political dilemma was comparatively simple. So was its solution: The large member states -- France, Germany, and Italy -- accepted some common decision-making, because they believed they were still independent nation states.

The three small Benelux member states -- Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg -- accepted common decision-making, because they believed that this would maximize their national interests. Over the years, they continued to believe, logically if paradoxically, that the small countries could best safeguard their interests by submitting to the logic of majority voting.

The 10 new EU members do not have the same history as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The problem is not just that they are economically less developed, or that their political institutions are inadequate and corrupt. The real problem for the EU is that there is no sign that the 10 new members have any desire to learn the same lessons, because they do not agree with the old members about the real purpose of the European enterprise.

But do the old members really agree about the real purpose of the European enterprise? Unfortunately, they do not -- not since the British joined 30 years ago.

The British have long resisted European integration. Tony Blair says he wants Britain to be at the center of Europe. This is just talk: Tony Blair has not the faintest idea about what the center of Europe means.

The question is: Do the new member states want a more politically integrated Europe? Or do they in fact want a free- trade Europe politically subservient to the United States? These are the real questions posed by Sunday's breakdown of the constitutional negotiations in Brussels.