European Affairs

As a result of a particularly dangerous combination of circumstances, protests against the abuses of globalization are not only directed at the WTO, an organization that lies at the heart of the globalization process, but have also been extended to the European Union.

Demonstrators protested against the European Councils of Nice in December 2000 and Gothenburg in June of this year in the same way that they did against the WTO in Seattle and against the Group of Eight summit meeting in Genoa last summer.

The so-called “Sovereignists,” who seek to defend the nation state, and other protesters against closer European unity have until recently only attracted a very small number of supporters in most EU member states. They were not taken very seriously.

Now, however, they unexpectedly find themselves reinforced by the anti-globalization campaigners. The somewhat trendy anti-globalization forces have been given a favorable reception by political leaders on both right and left (including by French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder), who have grasped the scale of the phenomenon.

Yet, at first sight, this budding coalition could seem paradoxical. European governments can legitimately argue that strengthening the Union and its rules is the most appropriate way to control the globalization process, from which it is also possible to benefit. Pascal Lamy, the European Trade Commissioner, is right to point out that the WTO - even if it must be reformed - remains a necessary safeguard to prevent the law of the jungle reigning in international trade and the pressure of American hegemony becoming irresistible.

(A spectacular No from Ireland)

Until now, however, the arguments of each side have fallen on deaf ears. The European Union has been discredited as much by its recent mediocre political performances (a bad Treaty of Nice following a bad Treaty of Amsterdam) as by the inability of the present Commission under President Romano Prodi to generate an economic recovery. The Union has been weakened by the impact of the U.S. economic slowdown, which it has shown itself incapable of neutralizing. A disappointed public is turning away from the EU.

The negative result of the Irish referendum is a spectacular, if somewhat disreputable, example of the trend. Few countries have benefited more from the EU and its subsidies than Ireland and its farmers. And yet, a large majority of voters did not think it worthwhile to turn out and express their confidence in Europe - so much so that, in the end, a coalition of all sorts of malcontents won the day, causing a serious political problem for the entire Union.

An important reason for the victory of the No voters was the prospect of the EU’s enlargement, implying a reduction in the considerable amounts of financial aid that Ireland has received from the EU budget since it became a member in 1973.

In spite of its contradictions and paradoxes, this wave of protests threatens to swell still further. Its supporters share a rejection of the alleged excesses of « anything goes” economic liberalism (the gap between rich and poor is growing among nations as well as inside them).

They have allowed themselves to be swept along by the wave, as if surprised by their own success. It would be dangerous to count on them, even the more reasonable among them, to direct their troops not to attack the wrong target and to remind them of all the contributions that Europe has made, not least to the underprivileged.

Will the process of enlargement, the EU’s principal current project, become a victim of this wave of protests? A few weeks ago, the climate was still optimistic. The mini-reforms approved in December 2000 in Nice were presented as opening the way to the entry of the candidate countries, however insufficient they might be to ensure the proper functioning of a 25-member EU.

At the Gothenburg summit, the 15 current member states considered the process of enlargement to be “irreversible,” and even committed themselves, perhaps somewhat rashly, to complete the negotiations by the end of 2002. That would lead one to expect the entry of a first batch of new members at the beginning of 2004, given the time needed for ratification of the accession agreements.

(Earlier optimism has rapidly cooled)

Since then, this splendid confidence has cooled. There are several reasons for such a rapid shift. Curiously, the change in climate is no longer being explained by the prospect of difficult negotiations on the most sensitive issues, such as agriculture, regional policy, and free movement of labor and capital.

Today, the efforts made by the member states, particularly France and Germany, to resolve differences on agriculture give us hope for a relatively calm debate - although that, of course, could change! With the climate growing increasingly unfavorable to enlargement, the candidate countries will not be able to win many changes in common positions once they have been adopted by the 15 member states.

The fear comes mostly from the reaction of public opinion. What will happen, first of all, if the Irish do not change their minds and continue to refuse to ratify the Treaty of Nice ? “We shall move ahead,” Mr. Prodi immediately, and imprudently, stated. He has since been busy watering down the implications of that statement. There is no doubt, however, that that is really his position, and that of his staff : enlargement must happen, even if it has to be forced through.

It seems likely that a repeat of the Irish No, followed by a decision of the member states to carry on with the enlargement negotiations as if nothing were wrong, would stir up a European population that is less and less inclined to swallow an affront. “What happened to the eloquent speeches on democracy?” they would certainly complain.

Already, according to opinion polls in several member states, including Germany, reservations about enlargement are growing. This hostility, added to the systematically negative attitude of the anti-globalization campaigners and other euroskeptics, could have a devastating effect.

The accession treaties must be ratified. One hardly dare imagine the scale of the catastrophe if ratification were thwarted by a Parliamentary vote or the unfortunate result of a referendum in one or another member state. Already today, there are member states in which such an outcome might be plausible.

Without sinking into pessimism, as they well might, lower level Commission officials are aware of these new dangers, although this is apparently not yet true of the Commissioners themselves! How should we deal with these dangers? By making every effort to restore the image of an effective Union. This means that first, the enlargement negotiations must be conducted seriously. Promises alone are no longer acceptable.

(There is a dramatic lack of leadership)

It is one thing for a candidate country to include the acquis communautaire (the corpus of all the EU’s laws, regulations and practices) in its national legislation; it is another to be able to apply it effectively. In fact, the Commission has already announced that it will focus on the ability to implement EU rules convincingly in its annual report on the status of negotiations with each candidate country, due out in November.

Overcoming the fear of enlargement in countries like Austria, Germany, Spain, and France, will not, however, be enough to guard against unpleasant surprises. To succeed, it will definitely be necessary for the Union to restore its image among the growing numbers of the general public that are challenging it. It is admittedly making efforts in this direction when, for example, it makes a commitment to those who are concerned about globalization to fight for reforms in the WTO. But this is not enough.

The EU is suffering from a dramatic lack of leadership and long-term political thinking. The debate on the future of Europe, which should lead to political and institutional decisions in 2004, has barely begun. Nobody is yet showing signs of much vigor. These are the uncertainties that are strengthening the nebulous mass of protesters and gravely weakening plans for the future of European integration.

Philippe Lemaître is the Brussels correspondent for European Affairs, and is a member of an advisory committee designated by the government of France to lead the debate on the future of Europe. After 35 years of service, Mr. Lemaître recently retired as the European Union and NATO correspondent for the French daily Le Monde. He was the first Brussels bureau chief for the agriculture press agency, “Agra Europe.”


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2001.