- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

This is the crucial year during which the European Union will show whether it is able to overcome the national egotism of its member states and the many other contradictions it had failed to foresee.

On May 1, 10 countries, most of them freed by the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, will join the 15 existing members of the European club. Thus, at least in theory, the divisions and frontiers that have plagued the Continent for centuries will give way to the still fragile concept of unity.

But as the date approaches, divergences within the 25 nations are becoming more obvious and strident, while violations of the EU’s massive volume of laws and decisions are blatantly apparent.

According to French specialists, the European Union of 15 countries has yet to find its identity — and the task will become even more difficult after the expansion.

The search for an EU constitution has been blocked, and many consider the proposed document, drafted under the supervision of former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, impracticable.

Said Richard North, who heads the European Parliament’s research department, adopting the suggested constitution in its present form would mean that “the fantasy of the great European project could soon crumble into reality, destroyed by the contradictions it could never hope to resolve.”

Not all share this pessimism. Indeed, the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, is already looking beyond May 1 to the day when more candidates will be admitted.

The 10 countries joining this spring are Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta — listed here in the order of most to least populous.

Future potential members are Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, and later the fragmented Balkan Peninsula and Turkey.

The most controversial candidate, Turkey, in addition to being Muslim, claims its European ambition on the basis of the 5 percent of its territory being on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait, the traditional divider between Europe and Asia.

In January, while visiting Turkey, Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, assured Turkish officials that “thanks to the efforts undertaken in recent years, Turkey is closer than ever to the Union.”

Opinion polls and statements by various EU officials, including Mr. Giscard d’Estaing, indicate the concern — and even alarm — of Christian Europeans at the prospect of 66 million Turkish Muslims in their midst

Some Turkish media have accused the European Union of being a “Christian club,” refusing to expand into the Islamic world, even though Turkey has been secular since 1923. European advocates of Turkey’s candidacy believe the European Union should become a “geopolitical union,” an elastic concept in which religious orientation would play no role.

The cohesion of the present 15-nation bloc was considerably shaken by the efforts of France and Germany to change the voting system in the European Parliament by stripping some countries of their initially allotted seat quotas.

The plan was seen by many as leading to stronger domination of the European Union by its larger countries, and was strenuously opposed by Spain, an old member, and Poland, due to join May 1. They have accused Paris and Berlin of waiting to impose their “diktat” on the European Union and of maneuvering to limit the influence of Europe’s smaller countries.

Poland’s Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz warned: “We are not just going to be silent.” Its Prime Minister, Leszek Miller, went even farther.

In a recent statement, Mr. Miller cautioned against what he described as French efforts to muzzle new members, and said he favors “an active Poland — not one standing in a corner, taking orders from someone else.”

Poland with 39 million inhabitants, the biggest among the new candidates, has been frustrated since it signed the accession treaty of 2,500 pages — only part of which was translated into Polish. The entire volume of EU laws, treaties, decrees and regulations comprises — with cross references — 97,000 pages.

But despite Polish and Spanish resistance, France and Germany continue to propose new projects and ideas, most intended to reinforce their position as “Europe’s locomotive.”

They appeared undaunted, despite the action of the European Commission accusing Paris and Berlin in the European Court of Justice of violating the Stability and Growth Pact underpinning the euro, the joint currency of 12 EU members.

The commission is, in effect, challenging the legality of suspending the EU’s directive on budgets. According to Thomas Geracimos, a commission spokesman, the court challenge “had to be taken. It is our role as guardian of the treaty to ensure that it and its procedures are upheld.”

The planned lawsuit caused considerable concern, particularly among the new candidates, which wondered how they could have faith in the EU’s future if its two greatest champions were accused of violating its rules.

Some members of the commission feel that the efforts by Paris and Berlin to galvanize Europe are likely to suffer a setback because of the court action.

According to “Euroskeptics,” the two countries have become “super Europeans” after an initial period of reticence, during which German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder complained that “German money is being burned in Brussels,” the seat of the European Union.

Several EU members complained that France and Germany spearheaded opposition to the war against Iraq without consulting their partners.

New members, such as Poland and Hungary, also feel that France and Germany have put too much stress on challenging the United States, rather than on strengthening trans-Atlantic links.

The French have explained that President Jacques Chirac’s action to create “a European avant-garde” concept was a response to the slow pace of the European Union’s integration.

He and Mr. Schroeder succeeded in pushing through the project of “common security strategy” — which so far amounts to the establishment of a “European headquarters” with the ability to “plan and conduct operations” independent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to which most EU members belong.

The United States opposes the idea of a separate European command, claiming it duplicates and dilutes NATO’s role.

The debate on Europe’s prospects and on its relations with the United States has filled thousands of newspaper pages across the Continent, arriving at no specific conclusions. Questions that have been asked include to what extent the European Union will try to oppose U.S. economic might, and whether a productive trans-Atlantic relationship is feasible.

While “Eurocrats” in Brussels — an army of some 20,000 men and women — talk about a crisis, most Europeans appear oblivious to any problem. Their indifference is such that, according to a recent poll, 65 percent of French voters are not interested in the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament.

The problem of salaries of European parliamentarians has been a subject of acrimonious debate, with Germany leading the demand to reduce the pay, which in many cases is higher than that of members of national parliaments.

The salaries vary from $16,000 a month for Italian Euro-parliamentarians to $5,600 for those from Finland. Some European Parliament members from Central and Eastern Europe are scheduled to receive salaries 70 times higher that the average per capita income in their countries.

Perhaps the most serious problem is the future of the European constitution, which some countries would like to see adopted before the admission of new members — something that appears improbable.

According to one view circulating in Brussels, “If Europe’s constitution does go ahead, it will be like locking down the lid on a pressure cooker and sealing off the safety valve.”

Optimists in the European Union prefer to believe that sooner or later national feeling and priorities will give way to a desire to build “a new Europe” and even to expand it to the Ural Mountains.

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