As European Union Grows, Leaders Try to Decentralize

By Keyser, Jason | Insight on the News, September 21, 1998 | Go to article overview
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As European Union Grows, Leaders Try to Decentralize

Keyser, Jason, Insight on the News

Europeans are skeptical of the European Union, and many complain about bureaucrats with agendas that favor their own countries. But ail this may be changing in a gentler, kinder EU.

The European Union may be getting bigger, but some say it feels smaller -- the result of citizen-friendly policies intended to bring people closer to the governing process. Launched in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome, the European Union began with only six members: France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Today, it has become an economic behemoth -- 15 nations with a combined population of 370 million people -- adding Britain, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and Austria.

In the last few months, the 15-nation bloc has rapidly pursued further expansion and integration. Eleven nations locked themselves into a common currency, the euro, that will arrive Jan. 1, and the EU is negotiating with six new potential members in Central and Eastern Europe and Cyprus. Five more nations also are under consideration, bringing the possible total to 26.

As the union grows, so too its burgeoning bureaucracy in Brussels. Critics claim EU officials are losing touch with ordinary citizens. In Germany, pundits say forthcoming elections will depend partly on which candidates address public concern over the country's 70 percent contribution to the EU budget. France was forced last year to draft highly unpopular belt-tightening measures to qualify for the unified currency, bruising public support for integration.

Larger nations must be more willing to sacrifice national interests to make progress toward political unification, concedes Dutch Ambassador Joris Vos. But EU leaders are seeking to bolster the union's relevance to ordinary citizens through a series of legislative changes intended to make the union more accountable. "The direct role the union plays in people's lives is more visible every day" says Vos.

Austria, which has the EU's presidency for the first time, will host a summit in October focusing on ways to make the union more friendly to Europeans. Austrians also are renewing discussion of the long-talked-about but largely unrealized concept of "subsidiarity" the principle that decisionmaking should be passed down to the lowest appropriate level. Europeans like to joke about Brussels regulating the curvature of cucumbers and size of toilet seats. EU leaders hope that involving regional and local legislators will bring government closer to the people and avoid unnecessary bureaucratic red tape.

"Regional, local communities have an important part to play in the process of integration, because people tend to identify with the area they come from" says Austrian Ambassador Helmut Tuerk. "Subsidiarity is a vital means for bringing the European Union closer to its citizens and to enhance their acceptance of the European change."

But EU leaders also worry that hastily decentralizing the EU's decision-making could renationalize Europe. They want most of all to forge a common European identity. "The euro will be a quantum jump in making the EU a reality to people" says Vos. "As soon as they see the notes, they will realize, `Hey, there is a united Europe' and they will ask, `What does it mean to me?'"

The American public appears to view the euro as good for both Europe and the United States. Only 18 percent of Americans believe the euro will harm U.S. interests, according to a Program on International Policy Attitudes study released in June. Indeed, the PIPA study shows Americans to be more enthusiastic about European integration than EU residents.

Critics believe EU leaders often are less interested in Europe's unity as they are in defending the interests of their own countries.

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