Int. Herald Tribune
The trouble with Europe is blockage at the top

Giles Merritt

Paris, Wednesday, September 13, 2000


PARIS - As Europe returns to work after the long summer holidays, what is worrying political leaders and policy wonks most? Is it the euro's apparently never ending birth pangs, which the single currency's detractors prefer to see as its death throes? Or isit the persistent doubts over whether Europe can wipe out its political and military failures in the Balkans and operate an effective common foreign and security policy?

Or is it the growing resentment of countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic over the seemingly contemptuous way in which their negotiations to join the European Union are being mishandled and delayed? Or again, is it the almost universal skepticism that reigns across Europe about the worth and probity of the officialsof the European Commission.

It is none of these, worrying as all of them are. The chief concern among those whose jobs involve keeping the EU on track and moving forward is how best to overhaul its creaking decision-making mechanisms.

Designed in the bygone era of the Common Market, which grouped only six countries, the Council of Ministers, in which member governments thrash out their decisions, is beginning to seize up. As the number of member countries grows, so does the volume of work.

The council's inefficiencies are starting to have a serious knock-on effect on economic competitiveness in global markets. It now takes Europe five to eight times as long as the United States to agree on new rules for vital business sectors like e-commerce and biotechnology. In areas as far apart as encouraging more small entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and pulling down the barriers that protect competing national financial markets, the Council of Ministers is increasingly seen as a bottleneck.

The most pressing reason for reforming the council is the looming prospect of the EU's enlargement to the east. By mid-decade there should be 20 EU member states, and 10 years after that the number could rise to 30.

The diplomats and officials who run the council's secretariat note that when Sweden, Finland and Austria joined in the mid-'90s, bringing EU membership to 15, the decision-making machinery began to wheeze and groan alarmingly. They forecast paralysis if the next wave of member countries arrives beforeserious restructuring has taken place.How to rethink the Council of Ministers was the theme of a recent high-level discussion in Paris organized by the French think tank Notre Europe, which was founded and is led by the former Commission president Jacques Delors, and by the Brussels-based group Friends of Europe, whose president is the Belgian industrialist Etienne Davignon. The meeting brought together 40 heavy hitters from around Europe with direct experience of EU decision-making.

Much of the debates' focus was on the smooth running of the council. A number of suggestions were made, but the key point to emerge was how much greater the problem is than merely one of streamlining procedures and rebalancing the roles and powers of the various players. The real issue is whether European governments can, if left to themselves, take the European Union forward.

The EU's very delicate next phase involves developing a single voice on foreign and security policy and a pan-European economy with much more sophisticated political arrangements.

In short, can Europe advance to its stated goals without the European Commission regaining its central role? There was general agreement at the Paris meeting that the pendulum has swung much too far toward intergovernmentalism. The EU's agenda is being shaped and driven by the member governments, whereas previously it was chiefly the Commission that had set the pace and direction of European integration.

The Commission's decline owes a good deal to the scandals that rocked it last year. It also reflects a deliberate rejigging of institutions to strengthen the powers of the European Parliament and make the EU more democratic. The present Commission, headed by a former Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi, is struggling to reform itself and the way it manages its plethora of responsibilities, but it is seen by many observers as a failure when it comes to policy-making.

Many of Europe's governments are glad to see the Brussels executive in full retreat. "When prime ministers tell me they want a strong Commission," said one distinguished speaker, "I want to reply 'hypocrite'."

The writer, secretary-general of the Brussels-based organization Friends of Europe, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.



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