December 12, 2003

Commentary:

The New European Union: A Challenge for 25 Countries

By Emmanuelle Le Texier

2004 will be a challenging year for the building process of the European Union. Almost fifty years have passed since the founding members (Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy and Luxembourg) took the political decision to create the European Union.

New perspectives are foreseen with the entry of ten new member countries. This enlargement process is radically different from the past ones that have led to increase the number up to 15 (Spain, Portugal, England, Denmark, Austria, Greece, Finland, Sweden, Ireland). There are three main challenges that can impact the success of this new enlargement: the practical and political possibility to rule 25 members; the rejection of the proposed EU Constitution; the lack of legitimacy of the institutions and of interest expressed by EU citizens.

First, it is likely that the European Union members will take different paths to fulfill the various integration agreements. It is already the case regarding the Euro (only 12 of the 15 countries signed up, England, Sweden and Denmark did not) and the Schengen agreements (related to the right to free movement of individuals in the EU territory). Eastern European countries are still struggling with the economic criteria imposed upon their entry and some of them will not be willing or able to join the Euro currency zone. In fact, some of the members known as the “group of 5” (France, Germany, Spain, England and Italy) are already meeting apart to decide further steps into the integration process, especially in terms of immigration and asylum policy, social rights and EU foreign policy.

The multiple oppositions between on the one hand, old and new countries, and on the other hand, strong and weak members are threatening the political construction. For instance, Poland and Spain are questioning the representation and power they can have in the new European Union, in opposition to smaller but older members such as Belgium.

The second essential challenge for the new European Union has to do with the adoption of a European Constitution. The Convention for the Future of Europe —led by former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing— was set up 18 months ago. The members submitted a project of Constitution that integrates both principles about the fundamental rights for the EU citizens and for the institutional functioning of the EU (separation of powers, judicial and penal system, parliament competencies etc.). The most debated point is obviously the definition of the threshold to adopt new decisions. Indeed, the necessity to reach a certain percentage to get a proposition voted can exclude or include small countries or prevent others to build coalitions at the voting time.

Finally, the biggest issue member countries have to deal with is linked with the distance established between EU politics and institutions and its EU citizens. The low turnout during the EU legislative elections (on average 30%), the technocratic and corrupted image of the EU institutions; and the absence of dialogue at different stages of the construction might lead to an unsuccessful European Union. As an example, while referenda were organized for both the adoption of the Maastricht agreements and for the switch to the Euro currency, this has not been the case for the enlargement process. Citizens might feel it difficult to identify to such distant institutions.

Nevertheless, these difficulties have to be compared with the accomplishments and changes made since the 1950s. Twelve countries share the same currency (the actual exchange rate is 0.79 Euro for 1 dollar), EU citizens can freely move, work and study into the Schengen territory without passport, young citizens seem to embrace the new European identity as a beneficial one. 2004 will definitely be a new shift in the EU process and history, to be looked at carefully.

Emmanuelle Le Texier is a guest scholar, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, Institut D’Etudes Politiques de Paris-France. She can be reached at eletexie@weber.ucsd.edu

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