A half-century on, bureaucracy bogs down Europe's grand vision

The European Union's enlargement summit continues in Copenhagen.

When Jacob Söderman, a Finn fond of retreating to his woodland cottage, thinks of the European Union, he thinks big.

He appreciates the freedom its citizens enjoy to move around their increasingly borderless continent; he treasures "the good human values" that the organization promotes; he is grateful that the EU has helped its members "avoid disputes that might have started wars" in earlier times.

So Mr. Söderman is a bit disconcerted to find that the European Commission - the Union's executive body - is trying to tell Finns how many bears should live in their forests.

Half a century after the EU's founding fathers launched their dream of a united, peaceful and prosperous Europe, and on the brink of inviting 10 eastern European and Mediterranean nations to share that dream, the European Union is struggling to preserve its noble ambitions against a tide of nitpicking regulations - and a chorus of bickering.

As the expansion summit in Copenhagen began Thursday, EU officials were still haggling with the newcomers over farm subsidies and other aid to ease their entry. Meanwhile, Turkey conti-nued its loud demands for expedited acceptance - which the EU has resisted, saying that Turkey must first carry out more democratic and economic reforms.

Despite the last-minute horsetrading, the two-day summit is likely to conclude with an invitation to all 10 approved candidates. Even as it expands, however, the EU is engaged in a wide-ranging debate over its mission and how it should be run.

Expanding the EU to make it home to more than 430 million people will complicate all these questions, but none more so than the issue of how to make the Union meaningful to its citizens, and thus give it cohesion as a political entity.

"European integration cannot function unless citizens own the political process" says John Palmer, political director of the European Policy Centre, a think tank in Brussels, the EU capital. "It won't work as an elitist project," which is what it has been up until now, driven by the vision of politicians and bureaucrats more than by popular will.

This is at the heart of an argument being thrashed out in a year-long convention on Europe's future. On one side are those with a federal vision vesting great powers in the European Commission and other continent-level institutions. On the other are those who want to keep fundamental authority in the hands of national governments, which would cooperate as and when they felt it useful.

"A US-style federal solution would not work here," says Jens-Peter Bonde, a Danish member of the European Parliament. "There is no single people in Europe, and I don't see a European people with a common European identity developing."

But the Convention's drive to draw up a European constitution, creating a "framework for a continental political culture," might help change that, says Mr. Palmer. At the same time, the first buds of a continent-wide civil society are sprouting. Twelve European countries are bound by a common currency, the euro, and the boardrooms of Europe's biggest companies are increasingly multinational.

But even these new Europeans have little idea how they are governed. In a Eurobarometer poll published earlier this year, only 30 percent said they understood how the EU works. That is largely because almost all EU regulations are discussed and drawn up behind closed doors, by working groups of civil servants at the European Commission, which has the exclusive right to propose legislation. "They take decisions on binding laws without letting people follow the deliberations,", objects Söderman, who is the EU Ombudsman, the official who hears complaints from citizens against the EU administration.

The European Parliament plays a sorry second fiddle to the Commission and the European Council, where national leaders meet to hammer out deals.

The Convention is not expected to radically change that state of affairs, but it is expected to stress "subsidiarity," a Euro-buzzword meaning that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level, as close to the electorate as possible. That would mean, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing has said, that "the Union will manage its responsibilities - the currency, international trade and competition law - in a federal manner, and closely coordinate policies that remain anchored at the national level, notably economic and social policy, diplomacy and defense." Everything else would be left to national or regional authorities.

European Commission president Romano Prodi, however, envisions more than close coordination in foreign affairs. A draft constitution that he presented to the Convention proposes that "the Union speaks with one voice on the international scene, acts in a coherent manner showing solidarity, and exercises the responsibilities of a world power."

The EU - the world's largest economic power - does exercise such responsibilities in matters such as trade, but the prospect of it speaking with one voice still seems distant. Arguments over power sharing within the Union, and continuous haggling among governments over how much EU budget money each of them should contribute or receive, and where it should be spent, tend to obscure the organization's achievements.

"The EU has abolished the risk of another war in Europe" among members who sparked two world wars in the last century, says Palmer. And it has done so, adds Bonde, by creating "one big free market with no duties, which has meant that everyone has gained wealth."

"You can criticize many parts of the European Union", says Söderman. "But it's still the best Europe we have ever had."

In Germany, many fear expansion's price tag

BERLIN - In Germany, which will become the geographic center of a bigger European Union, the expansion is reviving memories of Germany's own troubled reunification.

Only 53 percent of Germans favor the EU's Eastward move, according to recent samplings by the German polling firm Emnid. Nearly 80 percent favor a slower transition period.

Costly subsidies to the poorer EU newcomers have many Germans dreading a financial shock such as the unexpectedly hefty price of German reunification. Germany, the EU's biggest single contributor, must also shoulder the largest financial burden of the expansion.

According to the survey, more than half of Germans fear a dent in their standard of living from the entry of the newcomers, expected to join by 2004 and share in some $40 billion in aid from the EU. Especially in eastern Germany, which has the country's highest unemployment, workers worry that direct competition from neighboring countries could bankrupt German firms and cost them their jobs.

But Deutsche Bank's chief economist, Norbert Walter, believes the concerns are overblown. "EU expansion is a completely different category," he says, adding that it will cost Germany nothing close to the more than $100 billion a year poured into former East Germany since 1990.

Germany, in fact, is best placed in the EU to profit from eastward expansion. It has already benefited from the postcommunist opening of Eastern and Central Europe. Since 1993, German exports to EU applicants Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia increased by 260 percent, rising from 5 to 9 percent of Germany's total shipments abroad. Experts say full integration of the Central Europeans into the EU could spur German economic growth by as much as 1.5 percent a year.

Fears of illegal migrants from the new EU countries are also exaggerated, says Ulrike Guerot, head of the EU Unit at the German Counsel for Foreign Relations. She points to a German Institute for Economic Research study predicting about 300,000 migrants a year entering the EU, probably 70 to 80 percent of that figure landing in Germany. Over the next 30 years, an estimated 2.5 million people could relocate to Germany. "These are not scary numbers for a country of 80 million," says Guerot, referring to Germany. As happened when Spain and Italy joined the EU, out-migration from those countries slowed, and even reversed, once those countries stabilized their economies.

Another widely held belief is that German firms, in search of cheap labor, will relocate en masse once the Central Europeans join the EU. But Michael Dauderstädt of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Bonn says that "most of this kind of relocation has already happened" and that once the new members adhere fully to EU environmental and social standards, some of their competitive allure will fade.

Germany's proexpansion elite acknowledges, however, that there are some pitfalls.

"The construction sector definitely doesn't count as one of the winners in eastward expansion," Heiko Stiepelmann of the Central Union of German Construction Industry said recently. For construction work, Poles earn about 30 percent of the German average wage. In Latvia, it is only 15 percent. The German construction industry is demanding a transition period of seven to 10 years before the Central Europeans join the single EU labor market.

- Paul Hockenos

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