John Bruton: Lost in the crowd - Reform of the European Union to allow enlargement must not dilute solidarity
FT, September 7, 1999
The author, Taoiseach of Ireland between 1994 and 1997, is leader of the main Irish opposition party
The European Union cannot hide from the dilemmas posed by enlargement to central and eastern Europe. It must open its doors to the new democracies born of the collapse of the Soviet empire. But in shaping a vision of a Europe of 40 states, the EU should not sacrifice the principles on which it has been built.
An inclusive Europe will require radical initiatives. The price of radicalism must not be a damaging dilution of EU solidarity.
The risks are apparent in a recent report prepared for the French government by Jacques Attali, former chief executive of European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
Mr Attali foresees that within two decades the EU will comprise 40 states, including Serbia, Montenegro, Moldova, Ukraine, Turkey and Belarus and, possibly, Russia, Armenia and Georgia.
Crucially, Mr Attali argues that the EU should let these nations in quickly. Keeping them out could see the growth of "mafia states", an obvious threat.
To that end Mr Attali argues for a radical overhaul of the EU's institutions. Among other things, he proposes it should:
Abolish the requirement for unanimity where it still exists and change the voting system to give more weight to bigger countries;
Scrap direct representation of individual states in both the Council of Ministers and the Commission, and instead create five constituencies to nominate representatives;
Limit the Commission and council of ministers to 20 representatives overall and amalgamate the presidencies of the Commission and council in a single European presidency.
At the core of Mr Attali's argument is the view that if Europe drifts into enlargement with its existing institutional arrangements, it will be threatened from two directions: by nationalist anti-Europeanism within existing member states, and by what he calls the "Atlanticist menace".
This latter worry reflects the traditional French preoccupation with the perceived threat of US domination.
To facilitate rapid enlargement, Mr Attali proposes that the EU should operate on the basis of a "varied commitment". In other words, each state would participate only in decisions in those areas where they were willing to show "solidarity".
Such issues cannot be ignored. Russia's hostility to the enlargement of Nato might be a foretaste of a response of an east European state which sensed that it was being treated as a second-class citizen.
Yet neither can the EU be blind to the serious risks of changes such as those proposed by Mr Attali. In small member states like Ireland the loss of a place in the Commission and Council of Ministers would lead to a crisis of political legitimacy.
Decisions taken in those institutions might be no different from those that would have been made under the existing arrangements, but the lack of representation would fuel opportunistic anti-Europeanism.
Much more fundamentally, Mr Attali's prescription heads in the direction of an infinitely large number of "opt outs" of the kind granted to Britain and Denmark at Maastricht over the single currency and, in Britain's case, the social chapter.
Here lies the real danger. This notion of infinitely variable geometry would totally undercut the concept of European citizenship. We have already seen how the British opt outs fuelled an even more virulent antagonism to Europe among some sections of British opinion.
"Unicity" is a fundamental principle of EU organisation. It makes all member states equal but demands equal compliance from all of them. The idea that nations were "in" for some subjects and "out" for others would make democratic decision-making impossible. Every difficult decision would be avoided by granting new "opt outs" to dissenting members. European solidarity would disappear.
What is needed is a radically different course: one which acknowledges that inclusion in the Europe of the 21st century should not be measured only by immediate membership of the EU. The way to counter the sense of exclusion among those not yet ready for full EU membership is not to abandon the principles of the Union. Instead we should enhance the powers and role of the Council of Europe and begin to integrate it with the EU.
Of course, the Council of Europe itself would need to be revitalised. Its founding treaty, agreed in 1949, envisages it having many of the social and economic powers and functions now exercised by the EU. But these have never been developed.
Now that the Iron Curtain is gone, the Council of Europe can come into its own. The EU states should take the lead in re-invigorating the process of decision-making in the Council. They could then transfer some of the functions and powers now held by the EU alone.
This presupposes, of course, an agreement that the key aspects of the EU's acquis communitaire - the main body of EU laws and regulations - would not be diluted and that a real degree of supranational authority was injected into the Council of Europe. Yet some issues, such as those involving free movement, might well be more easily dealt with in the Council because in areas of criminal law and social rights it has a stronger mandate in the wider Europe.
An institutional shake-up would see the European Commission given a place within the Council of Europe structure. In turn, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe could be given a status within the Union, thereby meeting the need for a link between national parliaments and the EU.
Naturally, the applicant states of central and eastern Europe would have to be offered a guarantee that enhancing the authority of the Council of Europe was not aimed at slowing down their natural progress towards full EU membership. Instead it would remove artificial political pressures for countries to be admitted to the EU prematurely.
What is required now is a fundamental review of these issues of political architecture. The EU must be strengthened not weakened by enlargement. The widening and deepening of Europe can be achieved simultaneously by bringing the Union and the Council of Europe into closer alignment.
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