EU Expansion Sows Doubts about the Future: Rift between Rich and Poor Nations Widens

Article excerpt

Andrew Borowiec is a writer for The Washington Times.

The European Union, 25 disparate nations spread from the North Sea to the eastern Mediterranean, has entered a period of discontent and doubt about its future objectives and cohesion. The chasm between the wealthy "old" and poor newly admitted members is growing, confidence in the union's cumbersome administrative apparatus is waning and disagreements with the United States over Iraq and Turkey keep raising points of friction.

The expansion to 25 nations from 15 members in May has heightened accusations of bungling, nepotism, and outright theft from the union's coffers, including by the 732 members of the European Parliament who openly admit inflating their expenses by an average $100,000 a year each.

The current Parliament was elected in June by just 44.6 percent of eligible voters--a record low turnout, showing indifference and discontent.

"We have failed to sell Europe to the people," lamented Dominique Moisie of the French Institute for International relations.

"There is an alarming discontent and disillusionment with politics across Europe," said Timothy Garton Ash, an analyst at Britain's Oxford University. "I don't think that the EU is going to fall apart, but I do think that it might become a structure of enormous complexity and even greater irrelevance."

Though the parliamentary vote was alarming enough, prospects for the approval of the draft European constitution look even more disturbing for those preaching European unity. Drafted by a team of experts headed by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a former president of France, the charter is intended not so much to lay the foundations for a "United States of Europe" as to inspire involvement among the 455 million Europeans and streamline the Union's complicated decision-making process.

By all standards, it is an impressive document, providing the Union with a president and a foreign minister to put more weight into the EU's budding foreign and defense policies, which so far exist on paper only. Though it took several steps toward a federal system, however, the constitution limited the scope of joining European decision-making on key issues and safeguarded the prerogatives of member states.

"Unanimous ratification of the constitution by 25 countries will not be adopted," said Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a newly elected centrist Euro- parliamentarian, "and the union is faced with a crisis."

Marc Amblard, a French analyst, said: "The draft is unreasonable and should be modified before it fails. Europe is run by a crew of civil servants randomly directed by the club of heads of state. You cannot steer a ship with 25 hands on the helm."

Although EU leaders appeared chastened after the bruising June vote, they can do little about the general apathy and disinterest. Some European analysts already fear that the constitution may become a victim of general voter disenchantment.

The constitution, as it stands now, would allow more majority decision making, make the voting system easier, give the Parliament wider powers, and simplify legislative procedures. Thus, a decision would require approval by at least 55 percent of member states, representing at least 65 percent of the EU's population.

EU officials admit that one of the problems with the document of 350 articles covering 250 pages is that few Europeans have read it, and even fewer regard it as something they would like to see governing their lives. Thus, a number of countries including France, Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, and Luxembourg have decided to submit it to a referendum sometime next year. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Belgium envisage following suit.

It is generally accepted that Britain will reject the constitution, and in France, opinion polls indicate strong doubts about acceptance.

French analysts see a referendum not so much as a vote for building a united Europe as a measure of the popularity of national leaders. …