Int. Herald Tribune
What about national sovereignty in Future Europe?

By William Pfaff

Paris, Friday, February 18, 2000

PARIS - The reaction to a governing coalition in Austria that includes the far-right Freedom Party has directed attention to the issue of national sovereignty inside the European Union, a subject until now skirted because of the radical difficulties it poses.

Countries which imposed sanctions on Austria without formal EU consultation or a recognized legal basis for their action shocked opinion in Denmark and some of the other smaller member states, which saw in this an imprudent interference in the sovereign affairs of a member nation.

The smaller states have reason for concern. They face a future as members of an expanded EU in which their power will inevitably be much reduced. An intergovernmental conference began in Brussels on Monday to work out over coming months how the EU must adapt in order to admit 13 new candidate members.

There is a consensus now that there will have to be majority voting in the future, at least on crucial issues; otherwise the EU will be paralyzed. This means diminished power for all states.

It also seems generally recognized that the original member states will become the core of a new and evolving EU-within-the-EU, in which the advanced countries will forge ahead in integration and centralization of authority, leaving the others to follow as best they can.

The "regatta" metaphor, adopted last year to describe how candidate states will be admitted individually as they pass the qualification line, will also describe how the EU itself advances. We already see this with the single currency, adopted by 11 of the EU's 15 members, and in the embryonic European defense "identity." Britain plans to be part of military Europe, while Ireland, Sweden and Austria are likely to stay out, on grounds of historical neutrality.

The hot issue is sovereignty. What sovereignty does a member yield? Who can be said to acquire that lost, or loaned, sovereignty? What are the EU's ultimate powers? What is the basis of its own legitimacy? Can yielded sovereignty be reclaimed? Can a historical nation really give up its sovereignty to an assembly of states without democratic legitimacy of its own?

Thus the question of what right Europe possesses to tell Austria what parties can belong in its coalition government.

Membership in the EU today formally binds a state to the principles of democratic government and to respect for human rights. "Serious and persistent breach" of those principles can bring suspension. That certainly cannot mean that Austrians are forbidden to vote for a party with a program calling for greater limits on immigration.

There are a dozen mainstream European parties that want to limit immigration. It is one of the most controversial issues in Europe. Look at Spain, where unprecedentedly violent anti-immigrant, "racist" rioting exploded last week.

The Austrian Freedom Party's other successful election issue in the parliamentary vote last fall was resistance to further EU integration. That is exactly what today's Conservative Party in Britain demands.

"Sovereignty" is a major political current in France today, where defense of national sovereignty against the centralizing "federalist" version of European Union has produced a new major political party claiming to represent the Gaullist heritage. The same current exists on the French left, where it is led by the interior minister of the present Socialist-led government. The Scandinavian members of the EU resist more integration.

What the 14 states actually did was tell Austria that because a certain provincial Austrian demagogue looks to them like a yuppy Hitler, his party should be barred from government. But, as the Austrian commentator Paul Lendvai has noted, the Social Democratic Party, which led Austria's government for the better part of the last 50 years, encouraged the growth of the Freedom Party from the early 1970s onward, in order to divide the opposition right. Jörg Haider is the beneficiary of those maneuvers.

The rest of the world still lacks a clear idea of what "Europe" really is about, but Europeans have also failed to examine exactly what it is they have created, and what it is they now intend to do with their Union.

It has in the past seemed better that they did not examine too closely where their actions were leading. The EU as it exists is something of a triumph of pragmatic improvisation within the intellectual framework of an ambition to unite so as to prevent a new European war. It has brilliantly succeeded by taking steps toward unity without defining too closely what it actually is or wants to be.

That worked with six members, then 12, and even now with 15. It is not likely to work with a Europe of 28 or more.

Original article