Big boys prove it’s a two-tier EU

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Series Details Vol.7, No.39, 25.10.01, p2
Publication Date 25/10/2001
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Date: 25/10/01

By David Cronin

'TOTAL solidarity'. The words rolled regularly from most leaders' tongues in Ghent as they assured Washington of EU support for its war on Afghanistan. Yet while the leaders may have been mouthing the same platitudes, there was considerable disharmony in their delivery.

Critics of the Nice Treaty have argued that it would pave the way for a two-tier EU. Although the agreement is still not ratified, last Friday's events indicated that such a Union already exists - at least in embryonic form.

This was highlighted by the 'mini-summit' held by the three most populous member states - the UK, France and Germany. Few suspicions would have been raised had Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder huddled together for a brief conversation on the margins of the main gathering. Instead their decision to accord the meeting an official status clearly irked those counterparts who felt snubbed at not being invited to participate.

Rumblings of discontent came from Italy, Belgium and Portugal but it fell to European Commission chief Romano Prodi to voice the strongest protest at this grandstanding. "The morale of the small states is really down," he proclaimed.

During its 30 minutes' duration, the 'mini-summit' proved that the results of more than a decade of talk about building a common European foreign policy are anything but spectacular. When it comes to crucial issues - such as the attacks on the famished Afghans - the largest EU states call the shots.

The disunity was further underscored in the statement on fighting terrorism issued by the summit. The 'Big Three' were eager that full support should be declared for efforts to defeat the Taliban. But the final statement issued fell far short of this. Some Scandinavian states objected to the notion that the West should impose a government on Afghanistan.

Sweden and Finland succeeded in having their reservations taken on board. Yet this did not deter the more powerful EU members from riding roughshod over them in public pronouncements.

The UK lost thousands of soldiers attempting to dominate Afghanistan in the 19th century but statements from current Foreign Secretary Jack Straw over the weekend showed it remains determined to be involved in shaping that country's government. "Destroying the Taliban per se is not a military aim but it is almost certainly going to be the consequence of the military action," he told BBC Radio on Saturday.

Jacques Chirac went even further, saying: "Indisputably, the Taliban regime must be replaced. The Afghans should be able to have a stable government, representative of the population as a whole and capable of preventing a resurgence of terrorism on their territory. Therefore everything must be done to enable, to facilitate this transition."

In a sense, the summit's declaration on the response to the 11 September atrocities attempted to placate both the hawks and doves of European politics. Full support for the US riposte was declared but it also said that the "absolute, highest priority" should be given to sending humanitarian aid to the displaced and dispossessed.

The irony was not lost on many. "If I worked for [development agency] Oxfam, then I'd be very annoyed with the message that the Afghans should accept the bombing because we'll be trying to make life easier for them afterwards," remarked one seasoned observer of EU affairs. Indeed, development groups have been extremely vocal in urging a halt to the onslaught. A joint statement by six of them last week declared that a cessation of the bombing gave the best hope of averting a major humanitarian crisis. About two million Afghans are thought not to have enough food to survive the winter and efforts to get supplies to them have been hindered by the understandable reluctance of truckers to drive into a war zone. The Ghent summit merely skirted around the question of how food can be disbursed among a population scurrying away from cruise missiles.

The military action wasn't the only issue to provoke disagreement. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhostadt made a surprise claim that the next gathering of EU leaders - at Laeken in December - could name the first wave of countries from central and eastern Europe to qualify for membership of the Union. This was news to both the 12 applicant countries and the existing member states as nothing so definitive had been agreed previously. Since then Verhofstadt's foreign minister, Louis Michel, has publicly contradicted him. "There will be no list, no rankings [of the applicant countries at Laeken]," he stressed.

The conflicting signals from Verhofstadt and Michel could be considered a primarily Belgian matter. Potentially more serious is the row that has erupted between Prodi and the Belgian presidency.

On Monday Prodi's spokesman, Jonathan Faull, gave a startling explanation of why his boss had broken with tradition by staying away from the joint end-of-summit press conference held by the Commission and the state holding the EU presidency. Although Verhofstadt had insisted that Prodi was too tired to attend, Faull said the real reason for the no-show was because he had not been given sufficient time to explain his position at previous press conferences with the Belgians. "There was no boycott," Faull added, but it has hard to think of another term to describe Prodi's no-show. It also must be recalled that the Commission chief has complained of being sidelined by national governments on other occasions - most notably at last December's Nice summit.

One of his predecessors, Jacques Delors, and former commissioner Peter Sutherland have also argued that concerted efforts have been made by member states over the past year to override the Commission, with the latter even alleging that there is a conspiracy to do so. As Prodi is an affable character it is unlikely that he will allow his personal relations with Verhofstadt to sour further. Nevertheless, the spat seems to reflect growing anxiety in the EU's executive that its importance is waning.

  • THE summit was dominated by one issue - the war against terrorism. The heads of state adopted a seven-point declaration, including reaffirming solidarity with the "legitimate" US operation in Afghanistan and pledging humanitarian help. They also reinforced the action plan adopted at their emergency meeting on 21 September, stressing that progress must be achieved quickly in three areas:
  • The EU-wide arrest warrant;
  • Cooperation between agencies charged with the fight against terrorism;
  • Combating the financing of terrorism and adopting Commission proposals on air traffic security.
  • Other key agreements included:
  • The setting up of the Convention to debate and propose institutional reforms: This will be headed by a chairman and a five-strong board to be announced at the Laeken summit in December.
  • The euro: The 15 called on the European Commission and the European Central Bank to pay particular attention to the readiness of local administrations for the introduction of banknotes and coins in January.
  • Middle-East: The EU will step up its efforts to promote peace in the region.
  • Enlargement: The leaders stressed the necessity to continue EU expansion.
  • Laeken: Heads of state discussed for the first time the possible content of the Laeken declaration on Europe's future.

Report of the informal European Council, Ghent, 19 October 2001.

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