Sunday, May 23, 2004

Who Was "Us"?

Us, the 25 members of the EU? Us, Germany and France? Or us, Schröder and Chirac?

John Vinocur continues his run of excellent Tuesday columns in the International Herald Tribune with a story on the European Union and how it is viewed by the leaders of France and Germany.
The parliamentary elections, a month from now, look largely like national preference polls, with voters' reflexes linked less to a vision of Europe than to an often angry free swipe at governments at home. The behind-closed-doors choice of a commission president already seems to have the feel of another my-guy-for-your-guy swap, a notional body from Luxembourg perhaps winding up at the World Bank, a Spaniard, by carom shot, as the EU's rep in Washington, and the top Brussels job going to someone whose most certain great skill is survival on the European political commodity exchange.

If a second attempt at a draft constitution — still not finalized or, for that matter, read by the EU's citizenry — clears a summit meeting here June 17 and 18, then it would have to be ratified by the member states. The thought that one of these responsible democracies actually might reject it was described in tandem last week by Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder as "inconceivable."

At the same time, the French and Germans were said to be working on a plan that would allow a group of EU countries to override the current provision that a single nation's veto blocks the constitution's adoption. Here was déjà vu, recalling the hardball moment last year when Paris and Berlin, their economies unable to keep up with the performance criteria of the EU's Stability and Growth Pact, simply overrode it.

…talking about the enlarged EU's chances to become a supranational undertaking as opposed to a glorified free-trade zone, the French newspaper Le Monde found that, "for the most part, the governments of the 25 members lack enthusiasm for the European project." …

Schröder (like Chirac), with his mind on the ballot box, has made a point of insisting that the new member countries will not be able to carry on with corporate tax rates lower than their western counterparts, and at the same time expect massive infrastructure subsidies improving their ability to compete within the community.

This would turn the EU's back on a formula that allowed a Spain or a Greece to come up toward the big guys' speed as new entrants. It hardly takes an advanced degree in Brussels arcana to see such an approach as further deadening any idealistic notion in Eastern Europe of a united, all-for-one future.

Maybe, in the consecrated EU manner, all this eventually can be worked in the dark of night through a cat's cradle of deals, arranged, as Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, once said of the EU, in a nice hotel at a pleasant destination.

But that does not address the EU's heart or dynamism. Occasionally, a European leader does.

Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, one of the new members, went straight at the place where reality clashes with sentiment-on-command. "We are not becoming a member of Europe," he said last month, "but an EU member. That's a prosaic proposition, not a lyrical one. Sadly, people are expecting something new, and it's not going to happen. They're going to be disappointed."

By sticking to the prosaic small print, Schröder, on the other hand, last week found room for a smile. The chancellor, sitting alongside Chirac in Paris, responded to a question at the end of a news conference about the chance of a German referendum on the EU constitution. He answered that Germany's Basic Law ruled out such votes. Then, beaming, and apparently thinking that his microphone was shut off, Schröder turned to Chirac, and said in English, according to Reuters, "That's good for us."

Who was us?

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