- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004

PARIS — The European Union, 25 disparate nations spread from the North Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean, has entered a period of discontent and doubt about its future objectives and cohesion.

The chasm between the wealthy “old” and poor newly admitted members is growing, confidence in the union’s cumbersome administrative apparatus is waning and disagreements with the United States over Iraq and Turkey keep raising points of friction.

The expansion to 25 nations from 15 members in May has heightened accusations of bungling, nepotism and outright theft from the union’s coffers, including by the 732 members of the European Parliament who openly admit inflating their expenses by an average $100,000 a year each.

The current Parliament was elected in June by just 44.6 percent of eligible voters — a record low turnout, showing indifference and discontent.

“We have failed to sell Europe to the people,” lamented Dominique Moisie of the French Institute for International relations.

“There is an alarming discontent and disillusionment with politics across Europe,” said Timothy Garton Ash, an analyst at Britain’s Oxford University. “I don’t think that the EU is going to fall apart, but I do think that it might become a structure of enormous complexity and even greater irrelevance.”

Though the parliamentary vote was alarming enough, prospects for the approval of the draft European constitution look even more disturbing for those preaching European unity.

Drafted by a team of experts headed by Valery Giscard d’Estaing, a former president of France, the charter is intended not so much to lay the foundations for a “United States of Europe” as to inspire involvement among the 455 million Europeans and streamline the Union’s complicated decision-making process.

By all standards, it is an impressive document, providing the Union with a president and a foreign minister to put more weight into the EU’s budding foreign and defense policies, which so far exist on paper only. Though it took several steps toward a federal system, however, the constitution limited the scope of joining European decision-making on key issues and safeguarded the prerogatives of member states.

“Unanimous ratification of the constitution by 25 countries will not be adopted,” said Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a newly elected centrist Euro-parliamentarian, “and the union is faced with a crisis.”

Marc Amblard, a French analyst, said: “The draft is unreasonable and should be modified before it fails. Europe is run by a crew of civil servants randomly directed by the club of heads of state. You cannot steer a ship with 25 hands on the helm.”

Although EU leaders appeared chastened after the bruising June vote, they can do little about the general apathy and disinterest. Some European analysts already fear that the constitution may become a victim of general voter disenchantment.

The constitution, as it stands now, would allow more majority decision making, make the voting system easier, give the Parliament wider powers and simplify legislative procedures. Thus, a decision would require approval by at least 55 percent of member states, representing at least 65 percent of the EU’s population.

EU officials admit that one of the problems with the document of 350 articles covering 250 pages is that few Europeans have read it, and even fewer regard it as something they would like to see governing their lives.

Thus, a number of countries including France, Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg have decided to submit it to a referendum sometime next year. Poland, the Czech Republic and Belgium envisage following suit.

It is generally accepted that Britain will reject the constitution, and in France, opinion polls indicate strong doubts about acceptance.

French analysts see a referendum not so much as a vote for building a united Europe as a measure of the popularity of national leaders. Recent local elections in Britain, France, Germany and Italy reflected public anger with both left and right and stinging criticism of the politicians in power.

Unless the trend changes very soon, the atmosphere will not be propitious for approval of the controversial constitution.

Waiting for ratification — or the rejection — of the constitution, the EU continues political bickering, caused largely by the disparities in wealth and influence of its members, makes vague plans for common defense and foreign policy, and is perturbed by the demands of Turkey to join the European club.

A report on Turkey’s progress in obtaining democratic credentials is expected by October, and in December, the union will decide whether to accept the formal candidacy of an overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 70 million, of whom barely 15 million live on a small strip of Europe along the Bosporus.

The Turkish problem has provoked a barrage of comment across Europe, mostly negative, pointing out differences in religion, concepts of civilization, the categorical denial by Turkey of the widely acknowledged Ottoman genocide of Armenians during World War I, and restrictions on the Kurdish minority, though some of these limitations were lifted recently.

The United States has argued that refusing to let its staunch ally join Europe merely would push Turkey closer to the tension-wracked Middle East. However, such U.S. pressure is not welcome in Europe and might even hinder Turkey’s application.

French President Jacques Chirac, aware of the tide of anti-Turkish feeling in his country, reluctantly agreed that Turkey “has a European vocation” but stressed that the time was not ripe for it to join the European Union. Many Europeans still regard Turkey as “a scourge of Christendom” that raided and plundered much of Europe over several centuries.

As politicians ponder whether the EU should be a geographical or geopolitical grouping, its executive body, the European Commission, continues to expand its personnel, gradually adding about 5,000 officials from the newly admitted 10 countries to the existing staff of 16,000 at its Brussels headquarters.

The Commission is one of the EU’s “pillars,” along with the Council of Ministers, the Parliament and the Court of Justice. It has been criticized for nepotism, excessive salaries and lavish spending.

The rotating presidency commands a salary of $316,000 a year, plus an array of perks. The chief spokesman earns $170,000 a year, and a simultaneous interpreter (there are 1,800 of them now) is paid $86,000 per annum.

EU commissioners earn $260,000 — a mind-boggling sum for those arriving from East European countries. Thus, Danuta Hubner, designated as an EU commissioner from Poland, earns five times more than the Polish president and is the best paid woman in Poland’s history.

Trainees from the new member countries get starting salaries of $57,000 per year, and residents of Brussels joke that they had never seen so many young interns driving Mercedes-Benz automobiles.

The European Parliament is described as the EU’s most democratic institution, acting as “the true representation of European citizens through democratic elections held every five years since 1979.”

Every six months, the EU heads of state convene as the European Council and set out overall directives and guidelines, including European legislation. The Parliament can then discuss the matter and give an opinion — although it may not necessarily be followed.

Consequently, the Council and the Parliament must reach agreement on a proposal before it can be written into law. “A system of co-decision” applies to 38 EU categories, such as internal market, consumer protection, environment and health.

So few Europeans voted for the Parliament because of “apathy, confusion and ignorance,” said Greek expert Stefanos Avripidou. “The structures are too complicated, the laws too detailed and decision-making too far from the people.”

Only 17 percent of adult Slovaks and one in five Poles bothered to vote in the June elections.

The new Parliament members began their first session with a debate on how to “harmonize” their earnings and agreed that a basic pay of $158,000 would be adequate, plus such perks as first-class air and train fares (most travel economy-class and admit to pocketing the difference), $7,200 for language lessons,” as well as $180,000 for annual staff allowances. Many Parliament members hire their wives and other relatives.

Officials and a number of EU experts claim the Union has made major advances by linking East and West European countries, establishing cooperation on a global scale and instilling the concept of “being European,” though some claim the latter is being steadily eroded by the faulty functioning of the complicated system.

From the economic side, the euro, adopted by 12 EU countries, has firmly established itself as a solid international currency. The per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the 15 “old members” is $22,000 (compared to $30,000 in the United States).

EU citizens enjoy the shortest work week and longest vacations in the world. Americans work 18 percent more hours than the average European, but European workers are protected by high and long-lasting unemployment benefits and other welfare-state measures.

The unchecked rise in unemployment in most EU countries (an average 10 percent of the labor force) is putting a strain on the EU’s state-financed pension and health system. The EU membership of some former communist countries with considerably lower wage scales has started a shift of industries eastward from Western Europe, causing concern in Western industrial circles about “unfair competition within the EU.”

The immediate task before the union is not only to improve its decision making but to stop the erosion of confidence among the electorate. One unidentified analyst observed: “There is a degree of democratic deficit within the system. Parliament needs more powers to keep a check on the Commission and Council. But Europe is on a path now, shaky as it may be, and there is no turning back.”

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