European Affairs

After Laeken: Europe Enters a Decisive Phase     Print Email
Philippe Lemaître

The next two years will be decisive for Europe. For the first time in five years, it is not unreasonable to be somewhat optimistic that Europe may be capable of making progress. Astonishingly, in view of their in§exible attitudes of the previous months, EU leaders actually took some important decisions at their Laeken summit meeting in December.

Those decisions should make it possible to re-launch the construction of a more united Europe after a period in which the effort seemed to have run out of steam.

The leaders set up a special Convention composed of government and parliamentary representatives, and asked it to submit proposals on how to develop the European Union, and on how to make the Union function properly in the light of plans to admit ten or so new members from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Cyprus and Malta.

This enlargement, which in a first phase could increase the number of members from 15 to 25, thus significantly changing the nature of the Union, is now planned for January 1, 2004, although no decision will be made before the end of 2002 or the beginning of 2003. A new Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) is to meet in 2004 to decide the necessary reforms, on the basis of the Convention's proposals.

Everyone is aware that after the failure of previous attempts to further the construction of Europe - failures to which the inadequacies of the Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice bear witness - this new effort represents the last chance.

The 15 leaders who met at Laeken appointed the former President of France, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, to preside over the Convention. He will be §anked by two Vice Presidents, Jean Luc Dehaene, a former prime minister of Belgium, and Giuliano Amato, a former prime minister of Italy.

Will the Convention be able to come up with constructive ideas on the future of Europe? If it does, which is perfectly plausible, will the governments agree to consider the Convention's suggestions? Or, will they ignore them and resume their traditional feuding?

The EU has already successfully resorted to the Convention formula. Such a body, under the chairmanship of a former President of Germany, Roman Herzog, was tasked with drafting the Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights, formally adopted at the Nice summit meeting in December 2000.

Sharp clashes sometimes erupted during meetings of that Convention, for example over the inclusion of social rights in the Charter. But it finally succeeded in reaching a consensus, without ever, or hardly ever, having to take a vote.

The exercise launched at Laeken, however, will be of a quite different dimension. It will be a question of agreeing both on what Europe needs to do on a collective basis, and on the manner in which to proceed.

The Convention will meet for about a year, starting in March. It will have 105 members split into three groups of representatives: those of governments and of the European Commission, those of national parliaments and those of the European Parliament.

Delegates from the 13 candidates for membership (ten Central and Eastern European countries, Cyprus, Malta, and Turkey) will participate fully in the deliberations, but will not be able to block a consensus reached by the 15 current member states.

Consultations will also be held with "civil society" - political parties, labor unions, associations and other non-governmental organizations - so that European citizens, who complain of being ignored, will be involved in the debate on the future structure of the EU institutions.

It is difficult to predict what turn the debates will take in the Convention, or to guess whether it will be able to overcome the divisions that have blocked discussion at government level and certainly still persist.

The representatives of the European Parliament, who know the issues and are used to working together in this way, seem well placed to exercise a decisive in§uence - provided they drop their tiresome habit of focusing solely on increasing their own powers relative to the other institutions.

But the real power will be in the hands of a 12-member "presidium" - although Mr. Giscard d'Estaing, who dislikes the Soviet overtones of the term, prefers the word "bureau." This group will be composed of Mr. Giscard d'Estaing and his two Vice Presidents; two members of the Commission, Michel Barnier of France and Antonio Vitorino of Portugal; two European Parliamentarians (probably Klaus Hänsch from Germany and Inigo Mendez de Vigo from Spain); two representatives of national parliaments; and national representatives of the three countries that will hold the EU presidency while the Convention is meeting: Spain, Denmark and Greece.

On the eve of the Laeken meeting, the appointment of Mr. Giscard d'Estaing, who was France's official candidate, was far from assured. There were two other candidates who were highly credible, but who had been late to declare themselves: Jacques Delors, the former President of the Commission from 1985 to 1995, and Wim Kok, the current Prime Minister of the Netherlands.

Mr. Amato was another possibility, although his chances seemed so slim as he entered the stakes that he quickly lost the support of his compatriot Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister.

Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister and President of the European Council, tried in vain to secure Mr. Kok's nomination. It was Jacques Chirac, the French President, who put an end to this maneuver by demanding that the Council pronounce on the candidacy of Mr. Giscard d'Estaing.

He immediately won the support of Gerhard Schroeder, the German Chancellor, then that of Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, and finally that of Mr. Berlusconi. After that nobody dared oppose Mr. Giscard d'Estaing. Although he had far from unanimous support, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing was thus chosen thanks to the aggressive tactics of Mr. Chirac. An additional factor, however, was that Mr. Giscard d'Estaing had shown more determination than his rivals, particularly the eternally hesitant Mr. Delors.

The choice is probably excellent for Europe. Some people criticize Valéry Giscard d'Estaing for having an oversized ego. But it is not obvious why this failing, extremely common among European politicians, should be a hindrance to Mr. Giscard d'Estaing in the mission with which he has just been entrusted.

It is tempting to draw the opposite conclusion, knowing that Mr. Giscard d'Estaing will certainly not be content with a walk-on part, and will try hard to make his mark on Europe. In short, he will feel strongly that the Convention must make ambitious proposals - and what could be wrong with that?

Mr. Giscard d'Estaing has clear ideas and great experience. He knows the inner workings of the European Council, which he created in 1974, as well as those of the European Parliament, of which he has been a member. He is familiar with all the key issues, and, above all, he has more sense of reality than most others.

In other words, his vision of Europe has evolved. He is aware that a Union with 30 members cannot be designed and managed in the same way as one with 12 members - it has already become impossible with 15. In sum, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing is in no way an extreme pro-European, a pure bred federalist primed to charge into a brick wall.

In a Union with 25 members at different levels of political and economic development, he knows that it will be necessary to introduce §exibility, all the while striving to maintain the coherence of the whole.

In the rare comments he has made since his nomination, and notably in an interview with Le Monde, he has depicted a vision of his mission that is both intelligent and wide-ranging. His goal, around which he should be able to rally his vice-presidents, as well as the wider Convention, is nothing less than a complete recasting of the European project.

We are already a long way from the mandate outlined in the Treaty of Nice, which was limited to four objectives: dividing responsibilities among the institutions; giving the Charter of Fundamental Rights the force of a Treaty obligation; simplifying the Union's various treaties; and defining the role of national parliaments.

Mr. Giscard d'Estaing is thus rightly indicating that he plans to turn his attention to budgetary issues, a subject that was not meant to be on the agenda until 2006. But how can one think seriously about a profound reform of the Union and its policies in the context of enlargement without having determined, at least in general terms, the broad outline of a financial program?

Several member states, such as Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and even France, are suspicious of the whole enterprise. They wanted the Convention's mission to be tightly constrained. That did not happen. The Declaration of Laeken gives the Convention almost complete freedom.

The more hesitant governments went along with this. Are they convinced that they can easily take matters in hand again at the Inter-Governmental Conference? That is possible, but not probable.

Opinion polls, and the way that the public debate on the future of Europe has begun in some member states, particularly in France, show that people are pleased that Europe is being discussed again, and that they favor further integration.

The good humor that accompanied the introduction of euro bills and coins points in the same direction. These are signals that politicians, including the most skeptical among them, cannot ignore. Such circumstances give the Convention an opportunity to exploit. Nobody doubts that it will try to do so.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number I in the Winter of 2002.

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