Year XXXVI, 1994, Number 1 - Page 3
Enlarging the European Union
The process of enlarging the European Union to Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden, which has gathered pace considerably following the December 1993 Lisbon Summit, has generated contradictions among the Twelve that have forcefully revived the issue of the Union’s institutional reform.
Prior to Lisbon, the great majority of member state governments seemed to be aware of the danger that widening the Union to sixteen members, without profound structural change, would lead to its dilution into a mere free trade area, and thereby its end as a political project. The decision-making mechanism of post-Maastricht Europe was already too complicated and confused to provide the Union of Twelve with an effective capacity for action. The inability of Europe to react effectively to both the Yugoslav crisis and the challenge of unemployment has demonstrated this all too clearly. An increase in the number of member states involved, and the impact of the new and disparate demands which each of the candidate countries would have made on the Union’s institutions, would have caused its decision-making process, already difficult and ineffective, to risk total paralysis. As a result, the majority of member states seemed to share the belief that enlargement should be preceded, or at least accompanied, by reform of the Union’s institutions to ensure greater cohesion and more democracy.
Yet institutional reform proved to be complicated and controversial, while pure and simple enlargement was, at least on the surface, the easier solution. A solution, which, moreover, was strongly backed by Great Britain, with the declared intention of diluting the Community. This solution was also backed by Germany, which, while it would probably have accepted institutional reform if it had not delayed the inclusion of the candidate countries, was nevertheless in a hurry to conclude this first stage in the process of enlargement, since it would have brought into the Union countries inclined to support her line in economic and monetary decisions; while it would also have opened the way to the inclusion of Central and East European countries in the German sphere of influence, and in this election year, could have been presented to German public opinion as a government success.
Hence the negotiations proceeded apace, and were rapidly concluded. But initial difficulties immediately presented themselves. Certainly, the “blocking minority” issue raised by Great Britain and Spain, which has delayed the conclusion of the negotiations, was not of itself very important. Decisions taken in the Union framework are basically intergovernmental in nature, and hence are usually the result of compromises, which are reached without recourse to a vote. The governments that backed the extension of the blocking minority from 23 to 27 weighted votes do not deserve to be considered champions of the political unification of Europe for this measure. Moreover, it is difficult to disagree entirely with the Spanish government when it asserts that until the Union’s decision-making process is made democratic, it is wrong and dangerous that an important decision can be taken against the will of governments that represent more than 100 million citizens.
There remains the fact that this controversy indicates that enlargement, rather than being the opportunity for increasing cohesion among member states, and for greater democratisation of the Union’s institutions, has produced as its first consequence a greater burdening of the Union’s decision-making procedures. The mechanisms agreed on at Maastricht, while granting the Union’s institutions a largely insufficient governmental capacity, were accepted by many as a transitional solution in light of the reforms set for 1996. But the fact that the entrance of four new states is to be accompanied by a further, however small, worsening of the Union’s capacity to take decisions and guarantee its own cohesion, creates considerable uncertainty about the prospects of the intergovernmental conference provided for in the Maastricht Treaty. Nevertheless, it can legitimately be argued that it was not necessary to await this small institutional crisis to recognise that such a situation exists. The consistent attitude of Great-Britain and Denmark over the years, as well as that of the four countries about to join the Twelve, towards any project to increase democracy in the Union should be more than enough to convince anyone willing to accept reality that, without a bold and fundamentally new initiative, no satisfactory agreement will be forthcoming in 1996.
Yet, for some of the Union’s member state governments and for the European Parliament, however weak the European commitment of both these actors may be, this ongoing situation is difficult to accept, since the Union, despite the degree of interdependence of interests that its progress has so far given rise to, needs to be governed. And if this growing need to be governed is matched by an ever lesser capacity to govern, it is reasonable to predict that the Union’s institutional reform issue will be continually revived by the force of circumstances.
The attitude of the European Parliament is a symptom of this situation. Having ingloriously thrown in the towel over the vote on Fernand Herman’s constitutional project, it has had a start of pride over the obstructionism of Spain and Great Britain regarding the blocking minority issue. As regards the ambiguous compromise reached at Ioannina, the Parliament has made it be known through a number of its senior members that it will not approve the membership treaties in their current form, without which they can not become law.
Yet the European Parliament will not be able to maintain this attitude for long in the absence of a concrete alternative able to turn its refusal to approve into part of a more wide-ranging strategy, one that is not defensive and conservative, but open and innovative, and carried forward by a line-up that includes other actors. In this way, the European Parliament would be given confidence from not feeling isolated from national political forces and from some of the governments and parliaments of the member states. If this does not occur, the Parliament’s resistance will be short-lived, and will be abandoned in the face of pressure from the governments, in exchange for some small concession.
But the problem extends well beyond the European Parliament’s approval of the four candidate countries’ membership treaties. It involves fully accepting the fact that enlargement is in any case an unstoppable process, testimony to the Union’s powers of attraction. Moreover, in so far as the Union will turn eastwards, this will represent the natural conclusion of the events of ’89, and the realisation of citizens’ aspirations in the weak democracies of Eastern Europe. The attitude of those who hope to oppose this trend with the sole aim of preserving the present extremely limited governmental capacity of the Union’s institutions must therefore be decisively rejected as meaningless and reactionary, and hence lacking a future. What is required in this context, then, is the elaboration of a strategy which allows, on the one hand, not only to prevent the slowing-down of, but moreover to accelerate the process of enlarging the Union; and, on the other, to launch decisively institutional change in a democratic and federal sense. Satisfying both these requirements is possible: but, in the current situation, it seems only possible if there exists the courage to recognise that the second of the two objectives can not be pursued in this initial phase, except in a framework that is not only more restricted than an enlarged Union, but even the Union of Twelve. The maturity of public opinion regarding Europe, and the openness of politicians to the issue of democratic reform of the Community’s institutions is still very different from one European country to the next, whether a particular country is a member of the Union itself or not. Thus it is virtually impossible that the proposal to federalise the Union will be peacefully accepted and unanimously agreed on either by a future Sixteen, or even the current Twelve. In this light, it is necessary to launch a process that will involve an increasing number of countries, starting from an initial restricted core. This requires the initiative of a very limited group of governments, or one alone, or the Commission, with the active support of the European Parliament.
This initiative must consist of a proposal, aimed at all potentially interested member states, to charge the European Parliament with the task of drawing up, in conjunction with the national parliaments and other Union institutions, a project for the Union’s institutional reform that should include at least the minimum requirements for a federal constitution. But this project should also contain a series of arrangements that ensure the compatibility of the federal institutions that will be created by the countries willing to accept them, with the institutions of the current Union, which will continue to function, and which will guarantee that countries unwilling, or not yet willing, to accept the federal obligation, will nevertheless have the possibility of continuing to enjoy the rights that derive from Union membership. In other words, this would mean creating a Europe of concentric circles, comprised of a central federal core and a ring of countries which would continue, along with the federal core, to form part of the Union in its present form, or in perhaps a diluted form if they so chose, with the guarantee of being able to join the federal core at any time, as and when they decided to accept its constitution.
This is not the place to go into the details of the problems which a proposal of this kind would lead to, both from an institutional viewpoint and that of the distribution of competences between the federal core and Union. These are problems that lawyers will apply themselves to resolving. In any case, it is certain that the real difficulties the plan will have to overcome will not be technical ones, but political. Such problems consist of the resistance of countries that are opposed to any change of the Union in a federal sense, and which would undoubtedly not be placated by a guarantee to preserve the acquis communautaire, and would similarly refuse to be excluded from the core, which is set to acquire real capacity for action, and hence to condition their decisions even though they would be basically excluded from its decision-making mechanisms.
Yet these difficulties while real, are superable. If some Union member states (hypothetically, the six founding members, plus perhaps Spain) managed, with the support of the European Parliament, to bind themselves firmly to the structure of a Europe of concentric circles, they would immediately find allies both among some of the governments and public opinions of Western European countries, and among the more mature sections of public opinion in opposing countries, which would understand clearly that the goal of the project would not be to exclude countries of the second ring from joining the process, but that of in effect making their rapid adherence to the federation possible. And to this should be added an even more important consideration. A democratic and federal institutional reform project would mobilise, in favourably-disposed countries, the pro-European feelings of their citizens, which have always been there, but which have not been given the possibility of expression, and which have in fact often been transformed into hostility towards the involved and bureaucratic arrangements of the Maastricht Treaty. This would put favourably-disposed governments in a strong negotiating position, while weakening that of opposing governments, which would find themselves in the position of having to justify to their public opinions their rejection of a proposal which would require of them only to allow others to proceed, without themselves being obliged to renounce any of their rights, nor compromise their legitimate interests. It should not be forgotten that the most pro-Europe section of the British political class and press never ceases to highlight, in an effort to dissuade the government from persisting in its negative attitude towards any and all progress towards European political unification, the prospect of the possible exclusion of the United Kingdom from a process that is nevertheless destined to proceed, with or without her participation. It is hence possible to predict that the proposal for a Europe of concentric circles, if it were to become a political reality, would provoke a heated political debate within Great Britain itself.
The proposal of a Europe of concentric circles around a federal core would therefore not guarantee that a split between countries for and against the federal perspective would be avoided. However it would enable the former to approach this split, if such a split proved inevitable, in a position of strength (and would thus increase the possibilities for avoiding it in extremis). Yet, these considerations do not provide an answer to two crucial issues. First, whether there actually exists a core of states that is able to express its determination to accept the proposal, and to support it in the face of opposition from the other, or some of the other member states, even to the point of causing a split, or the threat of a split, without giving in to the natural temptation to reach compromises that would turn the process back on itself. Second, whether the European Parliament, following its recent discouraging displays of timidity, is able to battle decisively for the success of this scheme.
These questions are moreover tied up with a further one: whether, in a period in which nationalism seems to have been resurrected all over Europe, there still exists in the public opinions of certain countries sufficient moral energy waiting to be mobilised, by the political forces whose task it is to express it, for a grand project for the future, which has as its real objective the political union of Europe. Because if one thing is clear, given the level of development which the process of European unification has so far reached, it is that Europe will not be made without political struggle, without a grand mobilisation of public opinion, in other words without the entrance into play of an actor whose presence has so far been only potential: the European people, the holder of constituent power. Yet if it is the case, as indeed it is, that the European federation is currently more needed than ever, these moral energies must be available, and the existence of the European people must be ready to leave the virtual state and become reality.
Hence, even if only virtually, there currently exists both the project, and the agent which can realise it. The occasion that can spark the constituent process off still has to be identified. This occasion can be none other than an institutional crisis, or a series of institutional crises, since, as long as the problems of co-habitation among the Union’s member states can be resolved by compromise, the governments will continue to use this approach, and the European federation will remain an ideal objective destined to be perpetually delayed to a distant and indefinite future. Yet it is also true that the small crisis arising from the blocking minority issue could be only the first in a series of increasingly serious conflicts, and that the enlargement of the Union could lead within a short space of time to institutional stalemates that can not be resolved without radical decisions. For this reason the 1996 deadline could be decisive. The federalists should therefore prepare themselves for a phase of their struggle which will be both full of dangers, but also rich in possibilities.