News Article

A Half-Century On, Bureaucracy Bogs Down Europe's Grand Vision

By Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor

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When Jacob Söderman, a Finn fond of retreating to his woodland cottage, thinks of the European Union, he thinks big. He appreciates the freedom its citizens enjoy to move around their increasingly borderless continent; he treasures "the good human values" that the organization promotes; he is grateful that the EU has helped its members "avoid disputes that might have started wars" in earlier times.

So Mr. Söderman is a bit disconcerted to find that the European Commission - the Union's executive body - is trying to tell Finns how many bears should live in their forests.

Half a century after the EU's founding fathers launched their dream of a united, peaceful and prosperous Europe, and on the brink of inviting 10 eastern European and Mediterranean nations to share that dream, the European Union is struggling to preserve its noble ambitions against a tide of nitpicking regulations - and a chorus of bickering.

As the expansion summit in Copenhagen began Thursday, EU officials were still haggling with the newcomers over farm subsidies and other aid to ease their entry. Meanwhile, Turkey continued its loud demands for expedited acceptance, which the EU has resisted, saying that Turkey must first carry out more democratic and economic reforms.

Despite the last-minute horsetrading, the two-day summit is likely to conclude with an invitation to all 10 approved candidates. Even as it expands, however, the EU is engaged in a wide-ranging debate over its mission and how it should be run. Expanding the EU to make it home to more than 430 million people will complicate all these questions, but none more so than the issue of how to make the Union meaningful to its citizens, and thus give it cohesion as a political entity.

"European integration cannot function unless citizens own the political process" says John Palmer, political director of the European Policy Centre, a think tank in Brussels, the EU capital. "It won't work as an elitist project," which is what it has been up until now, driven by the vision of politicians and bureaucrats more than by popular will.

This is at the heart of an argument being thrashed out in a year-long convention on Europe's future. On one side are those with a federal vision vesting great powers in the European Commission and other continent-level institutions. On the other are those who want to keep fundamental authority in the hands of national governments, which would cooperate as and when they felt it useful.

"A US-style federal solution would not work here," says Jens-Peter Bonde, a Danish member of the European Parliament. "There is no single people in Europe, and I don't see a European people with a common European identity developing."

But the Convention's drive to draw up a European constitution, creating a "framework for a continental political culture," might help change that, says Mr. Palmer. At the same time, the first buds of a continent-wide civil society are sprouting. Twelve European countries are bound by a common currency, the euro, and the boardrooms of Europe's biggest companies are increasingly multinational.

But even these new Europeans have little idea how they are governed. In a Eurobarometer poll published earlier this year, only 30 percent said they understood how the EU works. That is largely because almost all EU regulations are discussed and drawn up behind closed doors, by working groups of civil servants at the European Commission, which has the exclusive right to propose legislation. "They take decisions on binding laws without letting people follow the deliberations,", objects Söderman, who is the EU Ombudsman, the official who hears complaints from citizens against the EU administration.

The European Parliament plays a sorry second fiddle to the Commission and the European Council, where national leaders meet to hammer out deals.

The Convention is not expected to radically change that state of affairs, but it is expected to stress "subsidiarity," a Euro-buzzword meaning that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level, as close to the electorate as possible. That would mean, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing has said, that "the Union will manage its responsibilities - the currency, international trade and competition law - in a federal manner, and closely coordinate policies that remain anchored at the national level, notably economic and social policy, diplomacy and defense." Everything else would be left to national or regional authorities.

European Commission president Romano Prodi, however, envisions more than close coordination in foreign affairs. A draft constitution that he presented to the Convention proposes that "the Union speaks with one voice on the international scene, acts in a coherent manner showing solidarity, and exercises the responsibilities of a world power."

The EU - the world's largest economic power - does exercise such responsibilities in matters such as trade, but the prospect of it speaking with one voice still seems distant. Arguments over power sharing within the Union, and continuous haggling among governments over how much EU budget money each of them should contribute or receive, and where it should be spent, tend to obscure the organization's achievements.

"The EU has abolished the risk of another war in Europe" among members who sparked two world wars in the last century, says Palmer. And it has done so, adds Bonde, by creating "one big free market with no duties, which has meant that everyone has gained wealth."

"You can criticize many parts of the European Union", says Söderman. "But it's still the best Europe we have ever had."

In Germany, many fear expansion's price tag...

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