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Muscles From Brussels?


by Nicholas H. Whyte, Europe director,International Crisis Group in Brussels

I come to this area of international politics from a backwards part of western Europe, which has retained the integrity of its own local quarrel over hundreds of years. The whole history of European integration is a triumph of ideas over adversity. It’s also a lesson for ancient conflicts in other parts of the world—that it is possible to overcome them. But it’s quite difficult to answer the very basic question of Why is the European Union? That may seem like a strange formulation, but if you were to ask Why is the United States? It is easy to work out why this country exists. The Declaration of Independence sets it out very clearly, with a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. The Declaration of Independence sets out the reason why this country wanted statehood. In a crystal-clear manner, the greatest president of this country, four score and seven years later, put it even more succinctly. He said, “This is a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” You will search in vain for such a succinct and clear statement of why the European Union exists.

The treaty of Rome in 1958, which established the European economic community, did have quite a good phrase, saying that “it was designed to seek an ever-closer union between the people [singular] of Europe.” That’s process rather than principle; it’s geography rather than concrete action. And if you look at the current draft of the EU Constitution, you will notice its preamble instead of “we, the people” (as in the U.S. Constitution) begins with “His Majesty the King of the Belgians, His Majesty King of the Czech Republic, Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark,” and so forth, “drawing inspiration from the cultural religious and humanist intelligence . . . of Europe from which have developed the universal values” and so on, for another 325 pages. This is not very clear or succinct.

What is the EU?

If we want to find out why the EU exists, we have to change the focus of the question and instead ask What is the EU? The EU is formed from twenty-five states and, in contrast to the American experience, it is worth saying that twenty-three of those twenty-five in the last one hundred years have experienced either dictatorship or oppression by their neighbors or both. The exceptions are England (I exclude Scotland and Northern Wales and Ireland) and Sweden. This is a formative historical thing for western European countries, and it’s no wonder that the original six members of the European community in 1958 included the two countries that felt they had suffered most from three wars in 1870, 1914, and 1918—France and Germany, also the three countries between them that had been squashed most heavily by those wars—Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. And the country that had been left constitutionally hanging with a dysfunctional political system after the Second World War and was desperately looking for a wider national community to merge into—Italy.

Interesting also is to notice that the British and other neighbors were involved in the early negotiations to form the European community. They backed out, because they were worried that the phrase about an “ever-closer union” might be serious, until the British changed their minds in the 1960s, but at that point the French wouldn’t let them in. Finally in 1974, the British and their three closest economic satellites—Ireland, Denmark, and Norway—all agreed that they might join the EU, except then the Norwegians had a referendum and voted against it.

That created a block of capitalist democracies in north western Europe bordered to the south by the dictatorships of Spain, Portugal, and Greece and to the east by the communist world, while still being in the middle of the Cold War. Almost exactly at the point where the EU had its first expansion, this was also precisely the point that the authoritarian regimes in Portugal and Greece fell, followed shortly thereafter by that in Spain. In the early 1980s, these countries, as new democracies on the European fringe, also joined (Greece before Spain and Portugal).

This is when the EU became more of an economic project. The crucial figure in this, although she hates to be reminded of it these days, was Margaret Thatcher, who believed that constructing a single European market, a place where people would feel safe to trade with each other, was a project that was worthwhile and was a project that was worth sacrificing certain amounts of British sovereignty.

The EU was on its way to becoming an economic superpower. Neighboring states that had opted out of previous enlargements, because it was too political and not in their economic interests to join, by the mid-1990s, they too applied for membership. All four of them were granted accession treaties: Austria, Sweden, Finland, and Norway. Except the Norwegians had another referendum.

Simultaneously, communism had fallen across Eastern Europe. Suddenly there was a whole new geo-political situation. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary felt they were part of the European mainstream and had been artificially kept away from it for ages. Small but forward-looking countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia had managed to disentangle themselves from larger federations with a minimum of fuss and were seen as safe and stable democracies in need of support. So it was that year the EU had its largest ever enlargement, with the eight former communist states: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia. The EU also moved to fill a small geopolitical gap that had been created in the Mediterranean by absorbing Malta and most of Cyprus, although not all because of the events of 1974.

Now you have a EU that consists of 456 million people, which in comparison to the U.S. at 292 million, it’s the single biggest economic space in the world. The countries range in size with Germany at 83 million right down to the smallest, Malta, with 400 thousand. Luxembourg is 450 thousand; I’m sure they’re proud of that.

The EU is now a federation of twenty-five seriously well developed member states, and there are others queuing up to join. In the accession queue are Bulgaria and Romania (both have been given a promise that they can join in 2007). The Romanians may not make it; they may find themselves locked in with Croatia, which I think is likely to join in 2009. Also in the list is Turkey (as of fall 2004), and having submitted a form membership application is Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic. I think we will see Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro (probably separate from Serbia), and ultimately, in some shape or form, Kosovo.

Once the question of the final status of Kosovo and Serbia has been settled, the geopolitical space will be western Europe to the boundaries of Russia, as it was up to 1920, not including the south Caucuses, and going to the Polish Baltic state’s border.

What Does the EU Do?

What does the EU do? It is a free trade area; a customs union; a single economic space where people can exercise the four freedoms. The four freedoms, incidentally, are not Roosevelt’s four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. They are the much more technocratic European four freedoms: free movement of goods, free movement of persons, freedom to provide services, and free movement of capital. I find the contrast between these two uses of the phrase “four freedoms” very interesting.

Freedom of movement is constrained in that the new member states don’t get to move directly into the EU with the old member states, but they will after a transition period. The EU has a single currency; the euro currency. The euro zone’s population is 308 million because it doesn’t include most of the eastern states, or the British, Danes, and Swedes. They produce rather nice bank notes, each of them which an educational map of Europe printed on it, including all the wee bits of France that people forget about overseas including Martinique, Guyana, and so on.

There are also things that the EU doesn’t do. The EU is not the Council of Europe (COE). COE is a different organization, based in Strasbourg, that supervises the human rights rating for the wider European area, including basically all the countries as far east as Azerbaijan and Russia. COE does have judicial power in human rights. It can impose fines and sanctions on countries that are not deemed to be fulfilling their human rights obligations.

The EU is not a collective security institution. That role is played by NATO and will continue to be played by NATO until American policy sees that as not in America’s self-interest. The EU is not even useful doing multinational diplomacy. We see that happening through the UN and through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which came out of the Helsinki process. These are each very different in character, and the EU as an actor hasn’t started to interface in a completely smooth way with any of them.

EU Operations and the Foreign Policy Picture

I work in the foreign policy area in Brussels on the countries closest to the EU that are in most danger of collapse or crisis. Specifically they are Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Moldova (a case close to my heart), Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. In my experience trying to make sense of the EU institutions, I find I deal with its four different manifestations in quite different ways. If I were in business or involved with environmental or social legislation, my approach would be completely different. The foreign policy picture of the EU is a bit weird.

The EU’s main executive body is the European Commission, consisting of one reasonably seniored politician nominated by each of the member states, each of whom is given a particular portfolio. The two that I will be dealing with most are the Finn and the Austrian, who have been given, respectively, the Balkans and the rest of the world, not including the Third World, which went to the Belgian. The commission is important because it’s got the most “Europe-ness” and also it’s got the most money. The commission, however, has lost a lot of power that it used to have in foreign policy. Previously, commission officials were the ones to determine exactly what European money was to be spent in a particular way, and they were the only ones charged with external action within the EU. There’s been a demand that the heads of commission officers abroad in different countries should appear for hearings before the European Parliament. So far this has been resisted, but it indicates the extent to which the heads of commission delegations, which tend to be administering aid programs, see themselves as European ambassadors. At the moment, they’re not. In fact, I find that in terms of policy work, for me a more useful institution is the European Council Secretariat (ECS).

When I first came to Brussels, the ECS had only one very boring task: to draw up the agenda for meetings of ministers from each of the member states. In 1999, however, it acquired something much more important: a single figurehead, Javier Solana, the former Spanish foreign minister and the foreign secretary general of NATO, who is empowered to speak on behalf of the EU as a single voice. He is the High Representative of the Common Foreign Security Policy and also the General Secretary of the ECS.

The reason for creating somebody with that position was basically to answer Henry Kissinger’s famous question, “What is Europe’s phone number?” Though as somebody who deals on a policy basis with Washington, D.C., I would like to know Washington’s phone number as well. I find as I shunt across the city from State Department to National Security Council to Pentagon to Congress that the voice of European policy has been very positive. Instead of the EU’s contribution to foreign policy being ministers meeting together and passing pompous resolutions, saying to the warring parties in Yugoslavia—you should stop fighting—now there is somebody who can go physically in and say, “You should stop fighting.” That may not sound like much of a difference, but I saw it work in 2000 in Guam and Macedonia, where very simply, there was a burgeoning crisis and it was, to a large extent, sorted out by direct diplomatic intervention from Solana and his very senior aides, with a great deal of heavy lifting also done by the American ambassador. It has made a difference having somebody who you can point to and say “that is Europe’s phone number.”

I’ve seen the ECS gaining in power, nonetheless it still has to share power. The ECS is the servant, not the master, of the European member states, so the third group of people that I spend time talking to are those in permanent representations. The EU has twenty-five member states, and all of them are equal, but in the words of George Orwell, “Some of them are more equal than others.” The ones that I spend most of my time on are the three big-hitters, that is to say the British, the French, and the Germans. Basically, anything in the EU that has been agreed to by the French and Germans is pretty likely to get through, and if the British have been persuaded to sign on to it, it is almost certain to get through. The other twenty-two countries will very rarely stand up to the big three getting together.

This excludes Italy, which has the same population—in fact, a larger population than France. The fact is that Italy has a very strange political system with a foreign ministry whose officials, on the whole, are very, very pro-European and anti-American, but a set of politicians who are, on the whole, very pro-American and rather less pro-European. The result is that Italy is unable to construct a coherent policy at a European level. I’ve read some things about the U.S. State Department, but I think you should investigate what’s happening in Rome if you want to see a dysfunctional system at work.

In addition to those big countries, often you will find smaller countries have got a particular interest and a particular problem. I mentioned Moldova earlier and oddly enough, this is one where the two branches of the Italian political system are in agreement, they are quite keen to have a limited system of migration with Moldova and are quite keen to ameliorate the problems there the best they can. They’re not very successful, but at least they’re trying in the same direction. Moldova is one country that I do talk to Italians about. And the Balkan countries—of course, I talk to the neighbors—the Greeks, the Hungarians, the Slovenes, and to a certain extent, the Czechs. Because the EU has got this rotating presidency system, I always find it worthwhile to keep in touch with whoever holds the presidency of the day—at the moment it is the Dutch. And because whoever is chairing the meetings tends to be too busy, I try and keep in touch also with the next presidency, which is Luxembourg, and the one after, in this case, it is Britain for the second half of 2005, who are already on my list.

I find that talking around the permanent representations does give an idea of which countries are coming from where and what the currents of debate are in the ECS. I had a very interesting lunch last Friday with a Finn, an Estonian, and a Belgian—and these are three countries with completely different historical experiences, particularly interesting to see the divide between the Estonians, who of course were under Russian rule until 1990, and the Finns, who escaped Russian rule in 1917. The Finns’ traditional neutral policy—not too keen on getting stuck in problems; the Estonians—very keen to get stuck into problems. Of course, they’re using other people’s soldiers because they only have a population of one and a half million—but they are very keen to try and push the policy agenda forward, and they are very pro-American, as you could expect from an ex-communist country that couldn’t wait to get out of the Soviet Union as quickly as possible.

The Belgians, on the other hand—completely the opposite—are very much suspicious of these Anglo-Saxon conspiracies, though given that the others at the table were an Irishman and two Finno-Ugrics, it wasn’t very Anglo-Saxon. The Belgians are in-line with the French view that the European civilization project surely should be one where we don’t need outside help with the English language. Nonetheless, the entire conversation was in English, as indeed are most of my conversations in Brussels, despite the fact that French is one of the main working languages of the EU.

The fourth group of people that I talk to in Brussels, as a foreign policy practitioner, are members of the European Parliament (EP). The EP has strong legislative powers, particularly in the fields of environmental legislation, economic regulation, customer services, and in constructing the single market, which we spoke of in the 1990s, and it’s gradually increased to have more and more power. The European Parliament is excluded from power in two very important areas.

One of them is the area in which most of the EU’s budget is spent: agriculture. That has been reserved for something that will be carved out between the governments. The EP barely gets a slice of the agriculture budget.

The other one, not surprisingly, is foreign policy, something that European member states cling to very jealously. I find I can use the EP as a nuclear option; it is a way of getting issues into the public domain. All of my other conversations with ambassadors, bureaucrats, and ECS officials tend to be off the record, trying to persuade them behind the scenes to move them in a particular direction. If they’re absolutely unwilling to do so, then my option is to get the EP to pass a resolution or at least to hold a debate on the topic that is of interest to me.

It’s interesting and embarrassing to note that the power of the EP is constrained by geography. The European Parliament meets one week every month in Strasbourg; that is where its plenary sessions are. Strasbourg is a four-hour drive from Brussels; by American standards that’s not much, but by European standards that’s two countries away: Luxembourg and France. Okay, Luxembourg’s not that big. This is how you emasculate your legislature, by not putting it near the seat of actual power.

If you look at Washington, D.C., which was the first, but not the last, city to be designed as a capital, the very center of Washington is the capitol building; that’s where the streets are numbered from, that’s where your ABCs go up and down, that’s where your northwest, northeast, southeast, southwest quadrants begin.

The EP’s seat is in Strasbourg, and its library is in Luxembourg, halfway between Strasbourg and Brussels. This is a very good way of preventing any group from doing serious research on the issues for which they’re supposed to legislate. And it’s something that I think is crying out for reform. Despite all this, I must say that my experience talking to policy makers in Brussels is that they’re all very intelligent, they’re all very committed, and they’re all very keen to talk about what it is that they are doing. Compared with some national bureaucracies, it’s rather heartening that people are prepared to be open about their internal policy debates. I don’t find this in Washington, where even between Democrats and Republicans, those who are in office and those who are out of office, there is a certain narrowness of consensus among those who are in the beltway, as the cliché goes. Perhaps my experiences with Washington have not been broad enough, and of course I have only done this under the current administration.

The final question is Has the EU developed muscles from Brussels? As an economic actor, I think it has. As a trading block, the EU is the biggest in the world. It packs serious weight inside the World Trade Organization. EU representations can force changes in U.S. domestic policy—for instance, in steel subsidies; this country that prides itself on its independence from all other sources. The euro is the peg for quite a lot of the world, although the dollar, I think, is still a stronger currency in that way.

I understand that 70 percent of all dollars that have been printed are in circulation outside the United States, most in Russia and in Latin America. However, the euro is the peg for Central African countries; it’s legal currency in both Kosovo and Montenegro, even though neither is an independent state; and it’s legal currency in the micro states of Vatican City, Monaco, San Marino, and Andorra—not that people care very much about them. The euro is there, and it’s becoming stronger as these things go, but I think it has not yet exceeded the strength of the dollar.

On the other hand, if the dollar were to be weakened still further in an act of deliberate policy by the U.S. Treasury, which is a possibility, we might see that changing. The biggest change of all, of course, will be if oil were ever to be counted in euros rather than dollars. I think that is a long way away—if it will ever happen. I have heard a Nobel Prize-winning economist urging that the euro, the dollar, and the yen should merge as a single world currency. I have my doubts about this.

Where the EU has not succeeded yet is as a security actor. NATO remains the bedrock for this. European member states’ attitudes to NATO vary along a spectrum from the French, on the one hand, who want to see a purely European solution to European problems and try to keep the U.S. out of this as much as possible, to the British, on the other hand, who are committed to trans-Atlanticism under any conceivable British administration, be it liberal, labor, or conservative, and who will prevent the French from ever setting up an independent European security—successfully having done so on a number of occasions.

Insofar as there has been progress in EU security issues, it’s been where the French and British have managed to agree. Examples of that have been the first EU military deployment, which was in Macedonia last year. This wasn’t a very glorious affair; this was 150 soldiers on the ground, with 450 backing them up in headquarters. This was peacekeeping very light, indeed, but they’re hoping to deploy a much bigger mission into Bosnia at the end of this year.

Similarly, the EU is now trying to do small peacekeeping stuff: police reform, currently in Macedonia and in Bosnia, and looking at reforming the rule of law in Georgia. These are missions that have previously been carried out by OSCE, and carried out more successfully by OSCE. Not just because OSCE drew on American and Canadian policemen and lawyers, although I think I’ve noticed them being quite prominent in such missions. But because OSCE tended to have a more decentralized approach to these issues, whereas the EU is still trying to prove that everything can be done from and through Brussels. However, perhaps that’s less important than the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is that the EU is now a block of twenty-five, possibly, if you take all the ones in my list earlier, up to over thirty nations, which is going to be a huge gravitational attraction to its immediate neighborhood. And the biggest of the neighbors that people get most obsessed about is Russia, but Russia will make its own decision one way or the other. I’m much more concerned myself about North Africa, where there are five or six countries between Morocco and Egypt, all of which are full of young, unemployed men, which is one of your classic potential conflict indicators, all of whom are looking with envy across the Mediterranean to the EU—some of whom are literally dying to get there. And if you look at what’s happening on the Morocco–Spanish strait, it’s very worrying indeed.

The EU hasn’t developed a sufficiently convincing vision for its own neighborhood. I would like to see a greater Euro–Mediterranean space; a space that would offer some kind of political and economic and humanitarian liberty; a common future for people living between Casablanca and Vladivostok. For the United States, it was easy. Once you got California, it was fairly clear what your manifest destiny was going to be: it was to fill up the spaces in-between, with a couple other fringy bits—my apologies to anyone from Alaska or Hawaii.

In my opinion, if the EU is looking for manifest destiny, this is what it has to be: to fill up that space between Casablanca and Vladivostok and to fill it with a shared civilizational value. Perhaps former French President Giscard d’Estaing’s famous phrases about being “united in diversity” and having “responsibilities toward future generations of the earth” can be turned into something more weighty than the paper airplane I fear they are at the moment.

This article was taken from a talk presented on 13 October 2004 at the Kennedy Center, which may be found archived online at