Europe going round in circles?

Since Europe's leaders headed home from a two-day summit in the Belgian capital Brussels, most EU watchers have been wondering where the continent is headed.

    EU leaders remain undecided on the future of the constitution

    The summit, which wrapped up on Friday, was desperately papering over the cracks of the crisis that has been simmering since the EU's brand new constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters one year ago.

    Andrew Duff, British Liberal-Democrat member of the European Parliament, told it was "quite a sobering summit. It's a crisis but it's not all a disaster".

    After a year of so-called reflection since last June, the EU's leaders have put off dealing with the constitution crisis for one more year – calling for a report on possible ways forward next June, with actual necessary steps to be taken by the end of 2008.

    Irish European expert Anthony Brown comments that "the extended period of reflection was to be expected and demonstrates the growing gap between the various camps on the constitution".

    Duff agrees: "The leaders are divided between prime ministers from places that have ratified [the constitution], those that haven't and those that can't."

    Optimistic outlook

    The most optimistic outlook has the politicians having negotiated a renamed, re-jigged treaty (no longer a constitution) by the end of 2008.

    This will then need another two years to be ratified by the 25 member parliaments, with most leaders hoping that this time they can avoid referenda and the risk of more "no" votes.

    Relations with Turkey are souring
    as EU membership talks begin

    So at best, the crisis over Europe's failed constitution may be resolved by 2010.

    One British diplomat says: "Europe fiddling again for three to four years while globalisation races on".

    But no one sees strong leaders pushing the EU back on track. Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, senior analyst at Spain's Elcano think-tank, believes there is a vacuum of European leadership to pave the way forward.

    "Angela Merkel [Germany’s Chancellor] can make a difference but she needs to wait for France [to elect a new president next year]. Blair is much weakened and what comes after him won't be much better," he told

    Constitutional disagreement

    Furthermore, the Bi

    g Three of Britain, France and Germany cannot seem to agree on what to do with the constitution. While the UK considers it dead, France would perhaps in a year or two agree to a much modified text, while Germany hankers after keeping the whole thing.

    But what of the Europe of "concrete results" promised by the summit? This will focus on a rather unimaginative set of areas such as improving the EU's internal market, increasing research and development, reducing "roaming" costs for mobile phone users, developing a common energy policy, tackling illegal immigration, and encouraging "solidarity".

    Antonio Missiroli, chief policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre, doubts this approach will win hearts and minds.

    "[European Commission president] José Manuel Baroso wants his Europe of results but if you look at the targets, they are very weak. There's a lack of substance."

    Nor is there much agreement here – France and the UK continue to have opposing views on globalisation, market liberalisation and social policy.

    And it's a very inward-looking policy list. Anyone looking for the EU to play a strong constructive political role in its wider region, let alone globally, may have to wait for some time.

    Membership questioned

    As the debates at the EU summit revealed, the Union is no longer strongly committed to enlarging its membership to Turkey or to the fragile states of the western Balkans. 

    The leaders, divided and on the defensive, emphasised the need to ensure the EU can function "politically, financially and institutionally" as it enlarges, and called for a special report for December on the Union's so-called absorption capacity, including taking account of public opinion.

    Some EU members have called
    for Europe to define its frontiers

    A big row can be expected then – with countries like the UK, Spain and Poland in favour of enlargement pitted against France, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

    Both Merkel and French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy have called for Europe to define, and so in effect close, its frontiers.

    Torreblanca is highly critical of this anti-enlargement mood and says enlargement and [European] integration have to reinforce each other.

    "There is a mentality in many capitals now that there is a trade-off but this has never been the case. France has never been comfortable with enlargement since 1989. But who says we can't have Montenegro with 600,000 people or even Turkey with 70 million in an EU of 470 million people?" he said.

    But the mood on relations with Turkey is souring rapidly even though membership negotiations have barely started.

    Days before the summit, the Greek Cypriot leadership, in the EU since 2004, attempted to block negotiations, since Turkey refuses to recognise the Republic of Cyprus while the island is divided and the northern Turkish Cypriot part cannot even trade with the EU (blocked by the Greek Cypriots).

    The EU insists that Turkey must recognise Cyprus since it is one of its 25 members and will report in the autumn on whether Turkey has opened it ports to Greek Cypriot ships.

    So even before the EU leaders have a general argument on future enlargement in December, it's looking likely that Turkish negotiations could be suspended during the autumn. Given the wider global context, including the conflict in Iraq, the debate over Iran, and the US-led "war on terror", a failure of the EU to develop a positive relationship with Turkey will reverberate widely.

     Internal obsession?

    Strengthening relations with Ukraine, let alone giving it a long run perspective of EU membership, is off the agenda for now. As one senior European Commission official puts it: "Policy towards Ukraine is very low key – I think we will regret it in five years or sooner. Belarus is a big black hole." 

    And to the South, EU policy towards North Africa is obsessed with illegal immigration rather than anything more constructive.

    Analysts are concerned today's Europe is obsessed with its own internal political architecture and policy disagreements. Despite being the world's largest trade bloc, and comprising some of the richest democracies in the world, the EU's current attitude towards the wider world is highly defensive.

    The Brussels summit called for a Europe of results. But if the rest of the world is keeping socre, it should not expect the EU to deliver any results in its region – or beyond - for some time to come.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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