Europe's leaders emerged yesterday from their longest, most quarrelsome summit in the five-decade history of the European Union with a compromise to reform their outdated institutions and accept as many as 12 new member states in the hope of propelling the Continent to greater political, economic, and military unity.
The five days and nights seemed reminiscent of the 1787 convention in Philadelphia that produced the US Constitution. Leaders from the 15-member EU fought bitterly over the rights of small countries versus the larger countries, the reform of existing veto powers, and the makeup of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm that proposes legislation.
A weary French President Jacques Chirac, whose country holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, qualified the results of the summit as "decent," but there was little doubt in his disappointment that many of the key French proposals had not been adopted or were significantly watered down.
The agreement finally extracted in Nice reweighted the voting in the Council of Ministers, the Union's top decisionmaking body, to increase the power of the bigger countries such as France, Germany, and Britain, which consider themselves to be underrepresented given their size and populations, while at the same time protecting the rights of smaller countries. The big countries also fought to avoid the possibility that coalitions of smaller nations in an expanded EU could overrule them.
But the voting issue also brought to the forefront the deeply rooted fear among the small states that they would loose all influence as the union expands, victims of a tyrannical majority. Portugal, for example, bitterly and successfully protested the wide gap between the number of votes allotted to it in the Council of Ministers compared with those given its much larger neighbor, Spain. The Portuguese veto on this issue threw the summit into a crisis, threatening the collapse of the talks and forcing the French presidency to come up with a voting plan more amenable to the smaller states.
While the small states were primarily concerned with maintaining their influence within the union, much as small colonies insisted on their rights in Philadelphia, every country was concerned with being able to defend what it considers to be its vital interests. Although the number of issues where the veto could be used by any member was reduced in about 30 policy areas, the veto power will remain in the policy areas that have in the past proven to be the most controversial.
The British, afraid of seeing higher European taxes imposed on them, insisted on maintaining the veto over tax and social security policy. "We are not bluffing," British Foreign Minister Robin Cook said at one point, referring to his country's refusal to eliminate the British veto on fiscal policy.
For their part, France refused to give up a veto on protecting its audiovisual industry, which it considers the cornerstone in defending French movies, music, and television against the long arm of Hollywood.
The overall issue European leaders faced in the French Riviera city of Nice was how to reform existing institutions in order to admit new members without the entire machinery grinding to a halt.
Plans to accept as many as 12 new members, mainly from the former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, but also including such diverse nations as Malta, Cyprus, and Turkey, were the reason behind the necessary reform of institutions originally designed for six, largely homogeneous countries. France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands set up what was then the European Community in the 1950s.
What began as a modest effort to join steel and coal assets following the human, social, and economic catastrophe of World War II has turned into what many consider to be an unwieldy super-state complete with a vast, unresponsive bureaucracy and a penchant for infringing on the rights of its member nations. Some countries, such as Britain and Denmark, fearing for their sovereignty, have even refused to join the euro, the EU common currency.
Nevertheless, the poorer countries of Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics such as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia see joining the EU as an opportunity to escape underdevelopment and as their best guarantee of strengthening their fragile democracies and ensuring respect for human rights.
Almost unnoticed in the squabbling over institutional reforms was the agreement reached on Friday, to proceed with the creation of a 60,000 member European defense force. But the accord was reached only after language describing the force as independent of NATO was toned down, under strong British protest.
"We are 100 percent happy with the agreement," Mr. Chirac said Friday. "NATO naturally remains the foundation of collective defense among the allies."
Yet despite the reassuring words, questions remain about the precise relationship between NATO and the new European security force. The Europeans say the new force could be called into action when either NATO or the United States decides not to get involved in a conflict. But last week, US Secretary of Defense William Cohen cautioned that NATO could become "a relic of the past" if the Europeans set up competing organizations.
The summit also decided to expand the number of members of the European Commission to 27, so as not to punish incoming nations. Currently, the EU's largest members appoint two commissioners each, while the other 10 countries have the right to only one. Under the approved compromise, the largest countries will give up their second commissioner in 2005, to allow new members to be represented. Once the commission reaches 27 members, EU leaders will have to decide on reducing its size, perhaps introducing a rotating system such as the one in use at the United Nations Security Council.
The Nice summit, and perhaps the entire history of creating a united Europe eventually stretching from the North Sea to the Bosporus, was best summarized by Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. "I think we are going to scale down our ambitions," he said at one point during the negotiations, "and then in the great European tradition, call it a success."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society