Breaking Europe's deadlock

June 07, 2005|By Samuel F. Wells Jr.

WITH THE strong rejection of the European Union constitutional treaty by two founding member states last week, the effort to strengthen the integration of the 25-member union appears deadlocked. Many commentators claim that further integration is impossible, expansion to new states foreclosed and the security of the euro currency system threatened.

While it may prove impossible for this constitutional treaty to be saved, the heads of government have some important issues to consider when they gather for a summit as the European Council on June 16 in Brussels.

The Treaty of Nice of 2000 remains the EU's fundamental law. It needs revision to be capable of providing the legal structure for a union of 25 states. But in a few months or a year, some of the provisions of the constitutional treaty could be pulled out and adopted, thus creating a more efficient set of processes for voting and foreign policy decision-making.

But a basic reassessment of what the EU should accomplish, how it functions relative to national governments and how it can relate more effectively to citizens must be agreed upon. Achieving such an agreement will require important compromises to be struck if this summit is to advance the course of European integration.

Shaping a new strategy for the EU will be complicated by the fact that the two recent rejections were largely for different reasons and came from countries with different views of what the EU should be.

Fifty-five percent of French participants voted non because of high unemployment and fear of globalization, belief that the EU pressed for free-market policies that threatened social programs, opposition to immigration from the 10 new member states and possibly from Turkey and general dissatisfaction with the policies of President Jacques Chirac. A recent poll showed 74 percent of respondents had little or no confidence in Mr. Chirac.

By comparison, 62 percent of Dutch voters said nee to the treaty. This was based on the belief that their country was losing influence to larger member countries; opposition to never being consulted on EU policies, including enlargement; dislike of the austerity policies of Jan Peter Balkenende's government and fear of increased immigration.

Divergent policy preferences, as reflected in the reasons for treaty rejection, make achieving a common position at the forthcoming European Council session very difficult. Among the issues to be decided is whether to continue with the remaining 13 ratification votes. Germany is pressing for completing the process, while Britain is leading a group that wants to stop and avoid further divisive rejections. It appears that sentiment is shifting toward a halt in ratification in order to refocus attention on the best next steps.

Opposing camps are already forming over what those steps should be.

Mr. Chirac has vowed to protect the French social model and allocate more state funds to create jobs. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair will be the rotating president of the European Council for the last half of the year, and he already has an agenda that includes opening the EU services market, reducing government bailouts of failing companies, expanding free trade and cutting agricultural subsidies.

The British agenda has received support from Italy, Austria, Greece, Portugal and several of the new member states. France opposes all the elements of Mr. Blair's program, and Mr. Chirac will likely receive the backing of Germany, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg.

To deepen the split, nearly all of the nations in Mr. Blair's group are strong supporters of the Atlantic alliance, while Mr. Chirac's backers would prefer an EU that serves as a counterweight to the United States in international affairs. The summit will be hard-fought, and some of the key issues probably will not be resolved because several of the key governments (France, Germany and Italy) are weak and not willing to take large political risks by alienating their traditional supporters.

Some might argue that a deadlocked Europe is good for the United States, but this view is shortsighted and wrongheaded.

From the start of its second term, the Bush administration has shown that it recognizes the need for cooperation with the EU in order to advance solutions to critical international problems, such as Iraqi reconstruction, Middle East peace, Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and global poverty and development.

Changed rhetoric in Washington and new pledges of cooperation during President Bush's trips to Europe highlight the new priorities. Europe's inward focus diverts energy and attention from trans-Atlantic cooperation.

The United States should continue to give quiet support to European integration, encourage joint international action when possible and avoid taking hard-edged public positions on issues such as Boeing vs. Airbus, the China arms embargo and continued detention of European citizens at Guantanamo. The EU member states must resolve their deadlock, and the United States should give them the opportunity and encouragement to do so.

Samuel F. Wells Jr. is associate director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

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