Philadelphia's French cousin?

At a summit starting today in Nice, EU leaders wrestle with issues familiar to US Founding Fathers.

As European heads of state gathered in the French Mediterranean resort of Nice for today's start of a momentous summit that will shape the future of their Continent, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, and James Madison cast their unseen shadows over the proceedings.

Bent on forming an ever closer union of different states with disparate interests, European leaders have run up against just the sort of problems that the framers of the American Constitution sought to solve.

What they are looking for is their version of the Electoral College - not to choose a president, but to balance members' powers.

Unless they find such a mechanism, and agree to pool more decisionmaking in the European Union, the whole process of building the union will grind to a halt, political leaders have warned.

"Each government will have to give up a little of its power in favor of collective efficiency," says Michel Barnier, the member of the EU executive body in charge of the reforms. "These are perhaps the most difficult negotiations we have ever done ... and if they fail, we are in a crisis."

This week's summit is the culmination of a year's negotiations among European governments on ways to overhaul rules and institutions that were designed for the EU's six original founders.

Already creaking under the strain of today's 15 members, they would collapse under the weight of the 13 countries - mostly former Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe - who have applied to join. The first batch of candidates, expected to include Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, are due to be accepted in 2002.

"What is at stake in Nice," says Dominique Moisi, a prominent French political analyst based in Paris, "is Europe's ability to fulfill its promise in the coming years."

One of the hardest nuts to crack will be persuading member countries to give up their veto powers. Although most EU decisions are taken by majority vote, governments can still block action in about 50 policy areas that require unanimous approval.

London, for example, is refusing point-blank to give up its right to veto any EU action over taxes, fearing that this could be a prelude to raising taxes Europe-wide.

Spain, a relatively poor country which benefits handsomely from EU development aid, will not yield its veto over such assistance, which new EU entrants will be claiming strongly.

Tyranny of the tiny?

A fierce battle also has been raging over how national votes in the European Council, the union's main decisionmaking body, should be weighted to reflect different population sizes.

Frightened that coalitions of small, new member states could outvote them on the council, the big nations such as Germany, France, Britain, and Italy are demanding proportionately more clout. This has given rise to bitter and prideful disputes between national capitals that measure their prestige by their voting power.

Especially nettlesome is France's insistence on wielding as many votes as Germany, despite having 23 million fewer people.

At the same time, not all the EU's 15 members are equally enthusiastic about forcing the pace of unity. Britain, Sweden, and Denmark, for example, have chosen not to join the single currency, the euro, for the present.

This has led some of the more wholeheartedly European-minded nations to suggest that they should be allowed to bind themselves more closely together in certain fields even if other EU members don't want to join them. Raising fears of a "two-speed Europe," this is a controversial proposal that the Nice summit must rule on.

With all these questions that could tip the balance of power, "there won't be agreement on anything at Nice unless there is agreement on everything," according to Mr. Barnier.

The blunt horse trading expected at the summit reflects the intense national interests at stake, and shows how reluctant states are to surrender them, as the original 13 American states were persuaded to do at Philadelphia in 1787.

The fights also illustrate the difficulties of "creating a new type of sovereignty with the habits, tools, and reflexes of the old sovereignty" that nations are used to, says Mr. Moisi.

For Nice is not Philadelphia. A federal United States of Europe, as some of the EU's founders envisioned their creation, no longer looks possible. Europe is seeking a role "as a superpower, not as a superstate," in British Prime Minister Tony Blair's words.

To many of its citizens, however, the union feels more like a supermarket, concerned primarily with economic regulations. Bereft of a motivating vision, few of them feel even remotely concerned about the arcane arguments over institutional arrangements that will rage behind closed doors in Nice.

Right to life, liberty, strike

A bid to raise Europeans' eyes to loftier ambitions, and to engage their loyalty, is found in a new Charter of Fundamental Rights, which the Nice summit is due to "solemnly proclaim," as the agenda puts it.

An embryo European constitution in the eyes of its supporters, the charter lays out basic rights to life, liberty, and property as well as the right to strike, to consumer protection, and vocational training, along with bans on human cloning and eugenics.

But it will not be included in the Treaty of Nice, nor will it have legal force. "Any juridical effect will be gradual, not abrupt," says Andrew Duff, a British member of the European Parliament who helped draft the charter.

"It is a progressive statement of modern European society," he adds. "The trick is to animate it somehow."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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