Globe&Mail - The problems of a bigger EU

Peter Cook

Monday, December 6, 1999

Brussels -- Visionaries looking at Europe, including financier George Soros and French author Jacques Attali, have talked of a European Union that -- not many years into the 21st century -- will have 40 member states. Mr. Soros gets there by adding the Balkans. Mr. Attali has Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine in his tally.

What would justify an endlessly expandable European Union? Well, no real justification is required. Merely a government located in the geographic area of Europe filling out an application form and mailing it to Brussels.

In the recent past, such applications have been treated circumspectly. The countries applying have not been the two remaining rich holdouts, Norway and Switzerland, but mostly needy countries from formerly Communist Eastern Europe. Obviously, for them, tests have to be set and examinations passed.

This week, when European leaders gather for a year-end summit in Helsinki, they will take a giant step toward opening up their exclusive 15-nation club.

Besides the six countries they are already negotiating with, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus, they will invite another six to the table, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Malta. Altogether, that adds up to 27 current and prospective members. Another country, Turkey, will be acknowledged as a potential candidate -- although, until Ankara improves its record on human rights, there will be no talks.

The negotiations with the 12 will then proceed under what is known as the "Regatta" principle. No matter where a country started in the race, it is deemed capable of crossing the finish line first. That is true, at least, in theory. Practically, Poland and Hungary look like they're coming in ahead. Bulgaria and Romania -- poor, inefficient and unreformed -- will be negotiating for 10 years or more.

Enlargement means the EU, its institutions and its decision-making apparatus will have to change. In Helsinki, the leaders will consider setting up something known as an InterGovernmental Conference (IGC) to push through reforms next year. The minimum that needs doing is to decide on the number of commissioners in Brussels each member state can have, the division of voting power on the Council of Ministers, and an extension of majority voting to replace the current need for most decisions to be unanimous.

In addition, the existing EU wants to forge closer links on security and defence, leading in time to Europe having a 50,000-strong army corps that would act as a rapid reaction force in a crisis.

It is fair to say that talk of an ambitious enlargement, and talk of an independent defence capability, both came out of the war in Kosovo. The two things that the Europeans learned from NATO's action in the former Yugoslavia were, first, just how embarrassingly reliant they were on U.S. firepower and, second, that they ignore destitute, dangerous places like the Balkans at their peril. Before NATO needed bases to wage its war, Romania and Bulgaria were on no one's radar screen in Brussels. Now, they are to be invited to join the EU "Regatta" even when they don't have a smart yacht.

In the context of Europe's future, it can be said -- as Commission President Romano Prodi told Europe's Parliament last week -- that "a swift, sure-footed accession process" is needed, otherwise the new countries will lose heart and slide backward. But that is more an objective than what is actually going to happen.

Last week, the Poles came out with a strong statement in support of high European farm subsidies. But, since Poland has more farmers than all of the current EU and they are poor, Brussels is unlikely to be as generous to them. Nor, looking ahead, are tight EU budgets going to provide the kind of economic aid that old members like Ireland and Spain have enjoyed. Mr. Prodi's point to the Parliament was that, unless the momentum of negotiation is kept up, disillusion will set in. But when the terms for this influx of new, needy members are decided, the sense of disillusion may be even greater.

The problem is that a club designed for rich countries with just one or two poor members is going to have to change completely. Moreover, as it stands now, this is a club that gives more constitutional power to small countries than large ones; it takes 820,000 Germans to elect a member of the European Parliament versus just 68,000 electors from Luxembourg. Given the inertia that grips European leaders whenever radical change is proposed, what we have in the making is an EU where small states will have primacy and, if they are poor, lesser responsibilities and fewer benefits. There will be first-tier members, those within a single currency and single market, and second-tier ones for whom the EU will be little more than a customs union. In addition, one tier will get the full panoply of subsidies and benefits while the other, more numerous tier won't. Is that workable? And, if so, for how long?

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