- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2001

PARIS When it comes to looking after national interest, few politicians do it better than the French. It is entirely possible that living in one of the most attractive places on earth, the French feel they are uniquely blessed and have more right than others not to compromise. Or maybe it is the lingering ghosts of French history, whether Napoleon or de Gaulle, that still inspire what one might call the French national superiority complex, a problematic psychological condition even in the best of times.
But these are not the easiest of times for French egos. Germany, once France's junior partner in the European Union, after unification not just outnumbers France in population by some 20 million, but now the Germans also have the nerve to behave as though they do. Meanwhile, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, all the way to the Baltics and the Balkans are knocking on the EU's door, which could result in an expansion of the current 15 members to as many as 30. Suddenly the European train has become much harder to steer than in the good old days when France was unchallenged as the driver and Germany content to be the proverbial engine.
Americans who look with concern at any progress towards a United States of Europe, particularly if it is dominated by French ambitions, might take note that while the movement is still in the forward direction, it could be described as more glacial than precipitous, particularly if you consider the outcome of last month's ministerial summit in Nice.
The meeting was to have been the jewel in the crown of the French presidency of the EU, producing an elegant new European constitution, such as the French, conceptualizers by nature, would have been proud to design. The framework was to have eliminated the problematic unanimous decision-making in favor of proportionality and majority voting, paving the way for extending the membership. A select group of EU aspirants are now in an advanced stage of negotiations (Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Cyprus). Others are just getting started (Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Malta and Turkey).
As it happened, neither the process nor the result in Nice could well be described as elegant or visionary. Bitter, confused and partial are probably better words. What we have here are age-old nation states with well-defined national interests, which they are not after all so ready to abandon in the name of the greater whole. This may not be that surprising. When 13 new American states got together in Philadelphia to write the U.S. Constitution, the process was also contentious and the product based on compromise between big and small states. Europe now faces precisely the same conflicting set of interests.
In his inimitable way, French President Jacques Chirac, who presided over the meeting, managed to infuriate other heads of state by his unapologetic attempts to protect French voting influence in the European governing institutions, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. Only partial progress was made towards solving the problem of individual country vetoes, which smaller countries are loathe to give up. The resulting system of weighted majority voting is so complex that there are doubts that the treaty, which must be signed in February, will survive that long.
Mr. Chirac has been roundly criticized for the result both at home and abroad. Relations with Germany, which France did not wish to give the influence that is its due in population terms, are rocky. Many smaller countries, including Belgium, Portugal, Finland and Sweden were furious over perceived French bullying at the summit.
With all of that, if the conservative Mr. Chirac was trying to play to the domestic audience by protecting French national interests perhaps with an eye to next year's presidential elections the plan seems to have backfired and his prospects for re-election certainly not brightened. French reviews of Mr. Chirac's performance have been just terrible.
"The events of Nice have shown how bad the damage is," commented an editorial in the left-leaning newspaper Liberation. "There doesn't exist anywhere a clear idea of the future of European institutions, except the vague concept of a 'deepening'." A leading member of parliament on the right, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, called the Nice summit the biggest diplomatic defeat for France since the Second World War." Which is saying quite a bit. Worst of all, the newspaper Le Monde commented that Nice marked the end of France's "intellectual hegemony." Now, that would hurt.E-mail: [email protected]


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