Europe: Nice – Growing national rivalries, a sign of future tensions

The European Union (EU) summit in Nice was supposed to be one of the most important conferences in Europe’s history. But the marathon summit ended in a messy deal of scaled down ambitions couched in the language of success. The summit and the discussions beforehand show increasing political divergences inside the EU, and this even before a recession starts to take its toll on Europe.

The national antagonisms that came to the fore at the summit make it absolutely clear that the EU is far from becoming a "super-state" or a political union.

The agreements (on the military question, trade and enlargement) reached in Nice were, of course, hailed as landmark decisions by the EU leaders. The French President, Jacques Chirac, who acted as chairperson in Nice (France has held the presidency in the EU in the last six months), even said that "the five day summit will go down in history for its complexity and success".

The summit in Nice, however, will not go down in history because of the fragile treaty produced, but more for the national divisions revealed and above all the tremendous mass demonstrations held against the summit. Up to 100,000 demonstrated against the summit in the biggest anti-globalisation protests so far. The centre of Nice was turned into a police state in order to avoid the demonstrators and protesters from blocking the summit. The mass demonstrations held in Nice are a harbinger of what will tend to become an all-European struggle against the bosses’ EU and the EMU.

The fact that the EU leaders, after hours of horse-trading, threats of walkouts and the big countries being accused of carrying out a "coup d’tat", were able to break the deadlock was anything but a "success". That another day and late night of negotiations was needed in order reach a minimal agreement shows the tensions that exist and how difficult it will be to both maintain the present balance of power and at the same time construct an EU "ready for enlargement". The decisions and the declarations in Nice outline the creation of a first, second and third league of European states, which in turn will tend to loosen the union and sideline many of its present decision-making bodies.

A record number of public rows amongst the EU leaders preceded the summit; these rows were neither the usual sabre-rattling that precedes every summit nor were they caused by the alleged arrogance of the French presidency. They reflected and reflect the fact that all the governments are trying to defend their national interests and that profound differences have emerged between France and Germany.

The unification of Germany has fundamentally changed the Franco-German balance. At the same time as that the old "super-glue" – the existence of a powerful Stalinist bloc next to the EU – that linked the EU states, in particular France and what was then West Germany, is no more. France and Germany are not politically bound together in the same way as before and the old equilibrium that existed between Europe’s two main powers has been broken. That is the main reason why Franco-German relations have become frostier in the course of this year.

This in turn has given way to a much more fluid situation where Germany will seek support, form single-issue alliances or even temporary blocs with other big nations, which will leave France with no other option then to try to do the same.

That Germany and Italy signed a joint declaration (in the form of a letter to the summit) before Nice demanding a super summit in 2004 was an indication of the changed relationship. Earlier on it would almost have been natural for Germany to win the backing of France for such proposals before an important summit.

The Maastricht treaty and the decision to introduce a single currency (later to be called the euro) inside the EU at the beginning of the 1990s was a political and economic project initiated by France to lock German imperialism into the rest of the EU and maintain the Franco-German axis. It marked the zenith of the Franco-German alliance, at the same time as the balance was inevitably going to tip in Germany’s favour. This in turn has made it more and more difficult to continue to develop the EU and EMU in line with what was jointly agreed by Helmut Kohl, then the German Chancellor, and the French President Francois Mitterrand ten years ago. Kohl and Mitterrand shared the view that a single currency and EMU was a step towards a political union. Not much is left of that vision after Nice, when all countries were clinging to their vetoes and used "in the interest of Europe" to get the best deal for themselves. National governments have started to diminish the power and influence of the EU commission. If anything, the summit marks another shift from Brussels towards the national governments.

Gone are the days when the EU Commission was led by "a strong man", such as Jacques Delors (a former French Finance Minister), as was the case in the 1990s. The new head of the EU Commission, Romano Prodi, was sidelined in Nice and involved in a public rift with Chirac. Prodi even sharply criticised the deal after the summit saying: "I am deeply disappointed. In the sensitive issues… progress has been insignificant or non-existent", (London Guardian 13 December, 2000).

Moreover, Germany after unification is not only the biggest economy in Europe, it has 23 million more people than any other member of the EU and has for years been the biggest net contributor to the EU’s budget (four times more than anyone else). Germany is now demanding a bigger share of votes that better reflects its size and economic power.

"Yet, however, modest the results, the inter-governmental conference [in Nice] and its ensuing treaty mark the beginnings of a significant shift in Europe’s geo-political map. The behaviour of both big and small countries in defending national interests has exposed fears and ambitions of the European Union as it embraces enlargement to a community of at least 27 countries" (London Financial Times 12 December 2000). The summit was, on the one hand marked by the four big countries, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, struggling to maintain their dominance in an enlarged EU and on the other hand France’s struggle to thwart Germany’s claim to be recognised as Europe’s main power – in the number of votes in the Council of Ministers, the EU’ s main decision-making body. The introduction of a complex system of double voting in which the size of the population is given extra weight, is a step that is obviously in Germany’s favour.

The agreement reached at the summit means that the big countries are still in the driving seat. "Having secured the principle that the big four countries will never be able to be outvoted by a coalition of small nations in an enlarged Europe, the conference turned into a confusing power play among midsize and small countries themselves", reported the International Herald Tribune (11 December 2000. The smaller countries were forced to accept that the present state of affairs would still be the same even after enlargement, but only after being humiliated and after the Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt threatened to walkout.

Moreover, the outcome of the summit outlines that a hard core of members – the pioneer group of France and Germany, as President Chirac has called them – could go ahead on their own after the EU members have decided to agree to disagree. This will pave the way for a two-speed EU. Also, France sees a two-tier or even a three-tier Europe as a price worth paying in return if the Franco-German axis could be maintained as before.

It is unprecedented for a US Defence Secretary to issue a public warning to the EU leaders a day before a summit. However, this happened at the NATO ministerial conference when William Cohen said: "NATO could become a relic of the past" unless Europeans carry out pledges to improve their military capability and link their new Rapid Reaction Force to the alliance. He also said that the new force that the EU plans to set up has to be firmly under NATO’s command and integrated in its structure. His warning was then echoed by the new NATO secretary-general George Robertson (New Labour) who said: "Mr Cohen was right to warn us and ministers were right to listen. If they [the EU-leaders] get a lot of things wrong then NATO will be irrelevant".

The US warning was a direct reply to a statement by Chirac, who earlier that week had insisted that the EU Rapid Reaction Force would "co-operate with NATO but it also has to be independent". The summit, however, decided to go ahead and form a 60,000 strong EU Rapid Reaction Force that "could" involve NATO.

Nevertheless, the very fact that the EU intends to set up its own Rapid Reaction Force, that has to include in total around 200,000 personnel, could lead to a rift between Europe and US on what role NATO should play in the world disorder. The EU’s decision originates from the disastrous intervention into the bloody events that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. What was supposed to be "Europe’s hour", as one EU spokeperson said in 1991, ended in the EU being humiliated and bullied by US imperialism. Representatives from the EU had no say in the Dayton Accord of 1995, and NATO’s war against Milosevic’s Serbia in 1999 exposed the military power of US imperialism. Europe is way behind the US as far as military technology and intelligence are concerned.

It was against this background that the EU leaders decided to try and work out a common policy on security and defence aimed at giving it "a capacity for autonomous action, backed by credible force". This will undoubtedly be followed by an increase in military expenditure as the EU countries try to close the gap with the US.

The main issue to be tackled at the summit was to construct an EU that will pave the way for its expansion from 15 members to 27 or 28. The agreement at the last minute will start to change its institutions and the decision-making process in order to open up the doors for Central and Eastern European countries. However, the EU still refuses to set an entry date. The summit went no further than yet more "warm words". The EU will most likely not bring in another new full member before its summer summit, the constitutional inter-governmental conference, in 2004.

The truth is that, despite what is said in public, the EU leaders are not looking forward to enlargement with much enthusiasm, quite the opposite. The situation today differs from the situation that existed when the enlargement project was first launched. The task of modernising the former Stalinist states has proved to be much more complex and painful than expected. Capitalist restoration has brought back mass poverty and social deprivation to Eastern Europe. Moreover, restoration of capitalism has caused huge political instability, civil war and wars on European soil for the first time since 1945. Most of the countries have still a long way to go before their GDP reaches the same level as in 1989. One in five people in Poland is out of work, according to the OECD, despite being Eastern Europe’s "top performer". The ten countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania) at the top of the EU’s waiting list would increase the land surface of the EU by one-third and its population by about one-quarter – but its total GDP by only about one twentieth.

The income per head in these countries averages 15 percent of that in the EU. All the countries that joined the EU in the 1990s had a higher average income than the EU’s as a whole. Even the European Commission estimates that, if no changes were made to the structural funds for regional assistance, nearly 300 million people in an enlarged EU of 26 countries would be eligible for special help, or more than 60 percent of the population. In addition to that, an enlargement would heavily increase the other big EU expenditure, the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). None of the present governments in the EU is that keen to pick up the bill. Financial reasons alone point towards a very protracted enlargement process. It is unlikely that the enlargement process will ever be completed, without totally changing the role and the character of the EU towards a loose union that is brought together by competition and threats from abroad, but with, in practice, different categories of membership.

Every step in the direction of enlargement could reinforce the formation of a two or three tier EU. "East European sceptics have been further buoyed up by the new plan of the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, and President Jacques Chirac of France to create an EU hard core, which seems to make full EU membership a goal so far away for the Easterners that it is almost not worth striving for. ’From Central Europe, the hard-core federalist idea is seen as emptying enlargement – it leaves them on a second-rate periphery to the hard core’, said Jacques Rupnik, a professor at the Insitute d’tudes Politiques in Paris" ( International Herald Tribune, 29 June, 2000 ).

Moreover, the beginning of a global economic downturn will put up a new barrier to enlargement and at the same time fuel further national divisions amongst the present members of the EU. The new phase in the global crisis of capitalism will reinforce political divergence, and economical imbalances in the EU and EMU, will tend to fragment the euro. The governments will come under enormous pressure to "opt out", although reluctantly, as the social and political crisis looms.

The policy and actions of the EU and EMU leaders are bound to provoke an explosion of mass anger. The "No" vote in Denmark together with the massive trade union demonstrations against the EU summit in Nice illustrate a willingness to take a stand against the bosses’ EU and EMU. The bosses and the capitalist governments are using the EU and EMU as a means of forming a Europe in which the living conditions of working class people are moved towards the lowest common denominator and where new walls are built against refugees and asylum seekers outside the EU.

The EU cannot be reformed to serve the interests of working people. The alternative is to step up the struggle for another Europe – a workers’ Europe. For an all-European struggle of workers and youth! For all-European campaigns and actions for jobs, social welfare, free education, a living wage and shorter working week on the conditions set by workers! Against cut backs in social services, de-regulations, privatisations, unemployment and racism!

No to the bosses EU and EMU!

Fight for a socialist Europe – for a voluntary, Democratic Socialist Confederation of Europe which guarantees every democratic right, including the culture and language rights of all national minorities!

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December 2000