European Affairs

Failure at the Summit Has Created an Ongoing EU Crisis     Print Email
Kirsty Hughes

The collapse of the EU summit meeting in Brussels in mid-December and the failure to agree a new constitutional treaty has thrown the European Union into a major and unprecedented crisis. Attempts by many EU politicians to talk down the severity of the crisis will not help in building a rapid and effective response to it.

The ambition of a new treaty to ensure a more democratic European Union closer to the people, and an efficient, enlarged Union with a real voice in global affairs, is for now suspended. This is indeed a crisis about enlargement, since it was the new European Union of 25 members that in an unprecedented manner failed to find a compromise to finalize two years of work spent drafting the treaty by a special constitutional convention.

The ten new members - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta - participated in the negotiations, even though they do not officially join the Union until May 2004.

The proximate causes of the collapse are easy to identify. It was not possible to resolve the stand-off over moving to a fairer, more transparent and more efficient double-majority voting system or staying with the complex voting weights specified in the Treaty of Nice, concluded in December 2000. The Nice Treaty gave Poland and Spain voting weights much bigger than justified by the relative sizes of their populations, and they refused to accept any formula that would have diminished their influence.

Summit observers identified Poland in particular as unwilling to compromise, while Spain, it appears, might have been ready to work with two of the four compromise proposals put on the table at the last minute by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who chaired the negotiations. But France was not ready to compromise either - a position in many ways more surprising than that of Poland, given that French readiness to debate the compromises would have left the Poles even more isolated and responsible for the summit's collapse.

Poland, unrepentant, has joined the awkward squad before it has joined the Union itself. Throughout the autumn the issue became ever more a key, sensitive domestic political issue, with the result that Prime Minister Leszek Miller backed himself into a corner that made compromise increasingly difficult. It is still unclear how, whether and when this Polish political stalemate can be overcome.

Polish politicians and media have been mostly positive and defiant in the face of the summit collapse. Poland, however, has in fact seriously damaged its political credibility and capital in the Union, which European minister Danuta Hubner had successfully built up during the earlier constitutional convention. The intransigence of the Polish position and its uncompromising rhetoric were only too reminiscent of British euroskepticism under former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

France's position is difficult to explain. Compromise on some of the proposals put forward could have been in both French and German interests. One compromise was to adjust the double majority formula proposed in the draft treaty, under which a measure submitted to majority voting would require the support of half the member states and 60 percent of the Union's population to be adopted. The compromise proposal was for slight increases in both thresholds.

Another was to defer a decision until 2008, when member governments would vote by qualified majority on whether the new system should go ahead. Germany, not surprisingly, was not ready to settle for only slight adjustments to the Nice voting formula, which gave it a disproportionately small weight compared with the size of its population.

Various explanations arise: is France after all reluctant to lose its voting parity with Germany, as the Nice Treaty provides, or, looking forward, is it worried that Turkey, with its huge and growing population, would dominate the new voting system if it becomes an EU member? Or is the French priority simply to create a core Europe - on the assumption that treaty failure will make it easier to build a small inner group of politically like-minded countries, and so sideline many of the new and some of the old members.

Mr. Berlusconi has rightly been criticized for failing to prepare the summit better, conducting inadequate advance discussions and failing to put forward written compromise proposals when necessary. But Britain did not help either in the run-up to the summit by issuing public statements in support of Poland and Spain. Although Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw expressed relative indifference between the two voting proposals, they strongly proclaimed the need for Poland and Spain to get a good deal

This reflects the ongoing schizophrenia in the British position. On the one hand, the UK wants to repair fences with France and Germany on defense after the bitter disagreements over the war in Iraq; on the other hand, it is trying to cement alliances in opposition to France and Germany. The British media hailed the outcome as very positive for Mr. Blair because, with no treaty agreed, he could avoid the controversial question of whether it should be put to a referendum. Such is the upside down and bizarre nature of British politics on European issues.

The political atmosphere before the summit was not helped by many of the other events of 2003. Divisions over Iraq still fester, reinforced by the clumsy U.S. decision to exclude non-combatant countries from bidding for reconstruction contracts financed by U.S. taxpayers, and by the ongoing debate about the reasons for going to war, not least in the context of the failure to find any WMD. The constitutional convention has brought to the fore tensions and splits between larger and smaller member states - although importantly the summit collapse was a fight among the big countries, with Spain and Poland, who were in the big country group in the convention divisions, fighting to remain in that group. Finally, France and Germany added to the tensions by flouting the EU stability and growth pact in the weeks before the summit.

Some have tried to lay the blame for the current calamitous state of EU politics at the door of France and Germany, with many rather aggressive caricatures of the Franco-German relationship being propounded. But the UK and other big states played an equal role in the splits between large and small countries at the convention, and the EU debacle over Iraq can be laid at many doors. The post-summit letter by six countries - Austria, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden - calling for tight budget limits in the forthcoming round of EU financial negotiations was seen as one more clumsy political intervention to sour an already appalling political atmosphere. On the summit issue itself, most states were positive and ready to shift to the new voting system. Spain and Poland had the status quo but no other arguments to defend their positions.

Immediately after the summit, many suggested the standoff could not be resolved until the end of 2004 or even until 2005 - Spanish and European Parliament elections in the coming months being cited as partial reasons. But Ireland, which took over the Presidency of the Council from Italy on January 1, has indicated readiness to try to move more quickly. Some suggest that a deal might possibly be reached even by May.This is to be welcomed. There should be a concerted political push for a solution at the EU summit meeting in March - after the Spanish elections - which would allow the new treaty to be signed in May, before the European Parliament elections and around the time the ten new members join the Union. Delay and ongoing crisis will only reinforce concerns over the European Union's notorious "democratic deficit" and add dynamism to the cause of the euroskeptics. The big doubt is whether Poland can get itself into a domestic political position that will allow it to compromise. A failure by Poland to do so could lead to a long delay, and even to the loss of the treaty.

The immediate implications of the crisis are entirely negative. The political mood has been badly damaged on the eve of enlargement, just when a positive political dynamic is badly needed to make the new European Union work successfully. The summit collapse also raises major doubts about the ability of an EU with 25 members (soon to be 27 when Bulgaria and Romania also enter) to negotiate its way through compromise to agreement. Short-term national interests are coming to the fore, with too many countries forgetting that they also have a national interest in the successful development of the enlarged Union.

The crisis also shines a spotlight on one of the toughest challenges for the enlarged Union: how to ensure strategic leadership and direction, given the diversity of 25 member states. It is clear that France and Germany alone cannot do this - but nor will strategic direction be achieved through a breakdown of the Franco-German relationship, which some malign critics seem to want.

Nor can leadership be provided either by a trilateral relationship including the UK along with France and Germany, or even by all six big countries together (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain.) All the larger countries - and not only France and Germany - have to recognize the need for alliances that work with the medium and smaller member states. But there is little sign that such a large-small alliance can be organized - not just to negotiate deals of convenience, but to provide overall strategic direction to the Union.

Nor will such leadership come for now from the EU institutions. The failure to agree on the new treaty means its provisions for strengthening the political positions of the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission are postponed indefinitely. The weakness of the current Commission significantly contributed to the developing crisis. The Commission did not provide an effective voice for the small countries, nor did President Romano Prodi independently pursue the search for a high-level political compromise with subtle political diplomacy. Both the Commission and the European Parliament are now lame ducks as they enter their final months in 2004. Meanwhile, the member states gear up for what would anyway have been a bitter budget fight, while global challenges receive cursory attention.

The delay in approving the constitutional treaty is already extremely harmful. Its loss would be even worse. That would severely damage the effectiveness of the enlarged European Union and undermine some of the steps that had been planned to tackle the democratic deficit and improve efficiency, just as these are more needed than ever.

Delay gives huge ground to the skeptics as they continue to argue against the constitution, and for the repatriation of powers from the EU institutions to member states. If the treaty is finally agreed, the infighting it has generated will make its approval more difficult in the national referendums to be held in various member countries. In the meantime, as governments continue to grapple with the problem, few national politicians are making a positive case for the treaty's contents. The Commission and the European Parliament cannot make that case and tackle the growing democratic deficit on their own.

Does this crisis signify the start of a two-speed Europe or a core Europe? What seems clear is that France and Germany would be keen politically to see such a development, especially if the alternative were a weak and fractious Union. But it is too early to give up on making the enlarged European Union work. Nor is it clear how such a core could be formed. If it is done within the current treaties then so-called enhanced cooperation must be open to all, must include at least eight countries and must in most cases be agreed by a qualified majority.

This cumbersome route is unlikely to lead to a dynamic core group of countries forging ahead as pioneers. Nor is it clear which policy areas would be susceptible to agreement among a core group formed around France and Germany. But the worst outcome would be a "variable geometry" European Union, in which differing coalitions moved ahead in different areas and all coherence and transparency were lost. Such an outcome would further damage the Union in the eyes of public opinion, but for now it, too, looks unlikely.

It should not be forgotten, however, that in the short run the Union will in any case be a much more clearly defined two-speed Europe than it is now. The new member states will not immediately join the euro or fully participate in the Schengen agreement by removing all their internal border controls. Fractious politics in the 25-nation Union could magnify the importance of the divisions implicit in this two-speed arrangement.

The summit did agree on the Union's new security strategy - an attempt to square the circle of the Union's bitter differences over Iraq. But the current crisis is the worst moment to try to make this constructive but very general strategy a real tool of foreign policy, giving the European Union more weight, voice and impact in the world. In the current political environment, it is difficult to imagine the Union making a serious, collective contribution to global affairs in 2004, whether with regard to security, trade or development. Nor is the Union likely to develop the real political will and strategy needed to face the challenges posed by the new neighbors and the wider Europe that will surround the enlarged European Union.

It is too early yet to tell if the current upheaval is a real turning point in the Union's development or if in the end it will be seen as a damaging, messy but ultimately surmounted crisis. The real losers for now are political relations in the new Union; support for the Union in public opinion; the quality of debate in the EU institutions; planned moves toward greater democracy; and the Union's role in the world. Losses will be greater still if the new treaty is never agreed.

Kirsty Hughes is a freelance writer and political analyst of European affairs based in London and Brussels.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number I in the Winter of 2004.