- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

“In Europe, no one talks about the nation-state anymore,” lamented Czech President Vaclav Klaus during his November visit to Washington. “It is almost like it is a dirty word.”

For Americans, who are used to thinking of their country with pride and who are skeptical about international institutions, it is hard to understand why anyone would find “national sovereignty” an objectionable concept. Elected officials swear to uphold American constitutional rights. The more accountable the U.S. government is, the better and freer we assume the lives of Americans will be.

But many in the European elites have a different view. If they had their way, terms like “nation-state,” “national interest” and “sovereignty” would be taboo. In one sense, that is why Americans and Europeans keep disagreeing over the role and usefulness of the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and any number of international treaty regimes.

Simply speaking, according to the European line of thinking, humanity ought to have evolved beyond the “narrow” interests of nationhood, and come to see the enlightened benefits of supra-national structures, of which the European Union (EU) is an example. Within the constitution that the EU has been working on for the past year, the EU member states aimed to pool their sovereignty for the creation of a bigger, more influential political union.

But the train wreck that stopped the European Union’s constitutional negotiations in their track on Dec. 13 suggests that “national interest” is alive and well, even in Europe. The “United States of Europe” is still a distant dream, but may never be more than that.

In Rome, constitutional negotiations broke down completely over how to share power in the new Europe as the European Union expands from 15 to 25 members. France and Germany wanted a system by which EU initiatives would pass if half the union’s members representing 60 percent of the population approved. Now, the biggest six nations account for 75 percent of the EU population, which meant that smaller states felt disenfranchised. The revolt against Germany and France was led by Spain and Poland, middle-sized countries that have started to flex their muscles.

As a consequence, the constitutional approval process was postponed indefinitely, a wise decision since it did not enjoy much popular support anywhere in Europe.

Europeans have on occasion accused the Bush administration of causing rifts between them. In the case of Iraq, there is no doubt that U.S. policy helped exacerbate differences within Europe. While France and Germany opposed the war and aspired to counterbalance American policy, the majority of European countries sided with the United States. Most European governments generally prefer to have close relations across the Atlantic.

It is a mistake to think, however, that rifts within Europe were caused by the United States, rather than by genuine disagreements between European governments. One such is over power sharing, another over whether to mention God in the preamble to the EU constitution. There has been disagreement over whether the EU needs a separate military-planning staff, and also over the direction of EU foreign policy. A Common Foreign and Security Policy is indeed part of the constitution, but the form in which it was adopted does not have any mechanism for enforcement with the different individual governments.

As a result of the constitutional breakdown, France and Germany have declared that they may go ahead with deeper integration of their own, leaving other countries to join when and if they are ready. Old and new EU members have vigorously opposed this idea as being not just antithetical to the EU founding documents, but to the entire spirit of the enterprise. A Franco-German alliance (which may also reach out to Russia) would obviously look much more like an old-fashioned power block than an exercise in European idealism.

Still, it is wrong to expect the EU to collapse and go away — as some Americans hope will happen when the noise-level from across the pond becomes too much. The European way is to muddle through, fudge tough issues and return to the negotiating table for yet another round. It might be recalled that it took Europe 50 years to get a common currency, the euro. Europeans love process, while Americans love results.

Still, we can note with some satisfaction that certain bedrock facts have not changed. One of those is that when push comes to shove, politicians know they cannot bargain away the principle of national interest.


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