German views on the EU Enlargement Summit in Athens

Today I’m on enforced exile from my reporting and commentary upon parochial Netherlands concerns. Still, not all the important things that are happening have to do with Iraq. An important case in point is the EU Athens summit, at which the fifteen current EU member-states and all ten candidate states yesterday signed the Accession Treaty. (Recall that only three of those states – Malta, Slovenia, and Hungary, in that order – have yet held the national referenda authorizing actually joining the EU in a year’s time. And Cyprus, due to its special circumstances, will hold no referendum at all.)

This Athens summit treaty-signing was supposed to be a joyful and historic occasion, marking the formal approval of the largest addition of member-states in the EU’s history. Yet plenty remained in the not-so-distant background – namely differences within the EU on the War in Iraq – to cast shadows over the event. “Europe is hardly in the mood anymore to celebrate,” the Viennese Paul Lendvai reports in Die Welt, in an extraordinary article which comprehensively presents the pessimist’s view of the current state of the EU. Lendvai cites the many divisions remaining within the EU: big states versus small, those in favor of closer integration versus those against, and lately those in favor of military action in Iraq versus those against. Rather than viewing expansion as a historic opportunity, many western European politicians are said to consider the incorporation of these new states as potentially a further drag to Europe’s commercial competitiveness. He cites recent comments by Gunter Verheugen (EU Commissioner for Enlargement) about how he increasingly he runs across politicians in the “old” EU who regard enlargement as simply a mistake; “the thrill is gone” (der Schwung ist raus) he is said to have remarked about the entire process. Furthermore, the “Yes” votes in the three referenda on European accession that have been held so far were not exactly ringing endorsements of membership, given the low levels of voter turnout. Strangely, in each case turnout was far below what public opinion pollsters had predicted – so that it’s possible that similar unpleasant surprises could await future referenda in other candidate countries, maybe not only with regard to turnout but even to the result.

Meanwhile, Andreas Middel in the Berliner Morgenpost brings up the old objection to enlargement, which everyone seems to have forgotten about: When the present fifteen EU states find it so difficult so often to even get to the lowest common denominator when there are important decisions to be made, how can we expect that an EU of twenty-five members will ever manage? There was supposed to be a parallel process to enlargement which would reform the present EU to in fact make it easier to get things done and get decisions made, precisely to ease such worries. Plainly, this has gotten nowhere. The agonizing dispute over the future of the Common Agricultural Policy already demonstrated that (as did the means used to temporarily solve it – namely, an exclusive Franco-German summit to work out a deal); then the rancorous divisions in Europe over Iraq laid any further doubt to rest. If enlargement ever is to work, it will have to be through the establishment of a “multi-speed Europe,” what German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has termed a “Europe of concentric circles,” in which member-states are free to form sub-groups to pursue sub-interests (such as the Euro, which still has not been adopted by all current EU members and will not be immediately adopted by any of the new members) without being hindered by fellow EU states through any silly insistence on unanimous approval. Perhaps it is this reality, invisible behind the celebration and talk of “reuniting Europe” that dominate the news coverage, which is the enduring meaning of this EU summit.

Back in Athens, in the manner of a couple trying extra-hard to be nice to one another after a particularly nasty quarrel, the assembled fifteen-plus-ten countries are working diligently to arrive at a truly common position on post-war Iraq. Once again, though, the methodology used to arrive at it is revealing: here, it starts with the select group of member-states currently with seats on the UN Security Council (namely the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Spain). The Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung reports (from Reuters) that these four, via informal negotiations among themselves at the summit, have come up with a declaration calling for an important role for both the UN and the EU in the reconstruction of Iraq, to be submitted for approval to the remaining current and future member states. Perhaps this will be approved without dissent, since after all 1) The content of the declaration is unobjectionable to almost everyone; where it could run into trouble is if it advocated less involvement in post-war Iraq by the Americans, to make room for the more involvement by the EU and the UN, but these four countries will presumably be smart enough not to get into that; and 2) There’s no need to worry about implementing or enforcing it – the Americans will ultimately decide anyway. Still, to some this process of coming up with a solution within an exclusive circle of four, before presenting it to the rest of the EU on an implied “take it or leave it” basis, is only marginally superior to the French-German solution cited above as four is to two. Is this the sort of participation in “decision-making” that joining the EU is supposed to mean? The former Communist states of Central Europe, in particular, are all-too-familiar with this method of operation from their days in the Warsaw Pact and COMECON; that does not mean that they particularly like it, or would find it acceptable as a “reward” for the wrenching changes they have had to institute in their economies and systems of government in order to accept the EU’s acquis communitaire and be allowed in as members.

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