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Dr Janez Drnovsek: Europe's Divisions, Old and New

Published by Project Syndicate, October 2000. (www.project-syndicate.cz )


From Joschka Fisher to Jacques Chirac visions of a federal EU are multiplying. To Slovenes, these ideas are unsettling reminders of Yugoslavia's federal design. Yugoslavia's federation failed because, in uniting so many differences, it could be held together only by undemocratic, even authoritarian, means. Should Slovenes, who avoided the worst of Yugoslavia's bloody dissolution, now jump into a new federal adventure, even if it is a European one?

That choice, of course, is not Slovenia's alone and is, anyway, now hostage to other concerns. Ten years ago, after the Berlin wall fell and Germany was reunited, Europe's democracies said that they wanted to repair the historic injustice of Europe's division, when the countries of East/Central Europe became a type of war booty for the Soviet Union. Today, as almost anyone east of the old Iron Curtain will tell you, however, enlargement is moving ahead at a snail's pace.

Candidate countries must harmonize their political and economic systems with the so-called acquis communautaire; current EU members want to ensure their ability to absorb enlargement by revising the EU's structures. It is often heard that the current number of members already makes the EU's work difficult. So it is virtually impossible to imagine enlargement to 27 members not endangering today's system.

The EU's first response to these fears was to make minimal changes - ie, to the number of commissioners, the weight of votes within the Council of Ministers, and qualified majority voting. Soon after the Amsterdam summit of 1997, however, "minimalism" became insufficient. Big member states began to use the prospect of enlargement as a tool to reduce the influence of smaller states; smaller states now struggle convulsively to avoid being marginalized.

Fears of equal intensity confront candidate countries. Despite occasional invitations to consult, they are de-facto excluded from participating in decisions about the EU's future structure, federalist or not. Moreover, they worry that the problems associated with changing EU decision-making will delay enlargement, with current EU members conveniently able to blame the candidates for this inaction.

These fears multiplied when the Helsinki Summit of 1999 raised the number of candidate countries from 6 to 12. Of course, offering membership to more countries is raiseworthy, but doing so may postpone membership for the first candidates. That worry was confirmed earlier this year when the European Commission curtailed negotiations with the first group of candidates, ostensibly to allow the others to catch-up.

Exacerbating all this is the specter of federalism which haunts governments from London to Copenhagen. In a bid to reconcile euro-skeptics and euro-enthusiasts, the idea of a two speed Europe - which began with the Schengen border arrangements and continued with the euro - gained momentum.

Today, it seems, the right to opt out or opt into an EU policy may be becoming a general rule. But there are dangers in this. The differences created among members may devastate the spirit of commonality. In the eyes of candidate countries, moreover, the two-tier EU that may emerge poses the added threat of first and second class membership, with today's members trying to escape the consequences of expansion by leaping ahead into some higher, more exclusive, form of membership.

Tolerance of such fundamental differences seems certain to effect Europe's emerging foreign and defense policies. The search for a common European stance in international affairs reflects Europe's experience in Yugoslavia's wars. A decade's bloodshed exposed the EU as incapable of solving a crisis in its backyard without American help. It will take years, of course, before Europe is independent of the US in the military sense, an independence some members, and most candidates, do not seek. Any misstep here could jeopardize what Europe has built over the decades.

Having now assumed the EU's presidency, France will seek a consensus for changes in EU decision-making. Some expect a precise time-table for enlargement with the first candidates to also be set, but I doubt this will happen. Next December's summit in Nice will be a success if it merely sets relatively short deadlines for accepting new members. If the mood about enlargement does not improve, however, expect the Nice summit to offer only vague formulations. That vagueness will be deliberate, because anyone speaking too bluntly on matters like this nowadays can expect to be quarantined like Jörg Haider.

Development of the EU over the next few years may well depend on how France leads the EU. By reinvigorating its axis with Germany, France seems intent on pushing forward proposals to strengthen the powers of big EU states. The resulting inequality will probably be hard to reconcile with a viable federalism and will likely breed resentment among small EU members and candidate countries, putting expansion at greater risk.

A decade after Europe's old division ended, the scars remain raw. So creating new divisions between big and small, have and have nots, and then trying to subsume them in a one-size-fits-all federalism may only revive all that Europe sought to avoid through its democratic integration. Failure to adequately address the historical injustice of Europe's postwar division, indeed, may lead only to renewed instability and crisis. Yugoslavia's wars of the past decade provide ample warnings as to what may happen when a federal system is torn apart by resentment.
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