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Europe's Splashes Will Ripple Here

Author: Michael Mandelbaum, Christian Herter Professor, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
December 22, 2003


On the same day that Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq an event took place in Brussels that may have an even greater long-term effect on the United States and the world.

The member countries of the European Union failed to reach agreement on a new constitution, thus calling into question the future of its 50-year march toward closer economic and political integration.

European integration is important because a genuinely united Europe would possess wealth, influence, and power to match that of the United States. The emergence of a European super-state would change the distribution of power in the world in ways that would affect American releations with every part of the world.

The stumbling block to adopting the new constitution was a dispute about how to allocate voting power in the new 25-country EU that is scheduled to come into existence next year when 10 formerly Communist countries join it.

This was, of course, an important issue at the American constitutional convention in 1787, which led to the creation of two legislative bodies, with membership in one - the House of Representatives - allocated according to population and the other - the Senate - composed of two members from each state.

A formula for apportioning votes in the EU had been agreed on at Nice, France, three years ago that gave almost as much power to medium-sized countries such as Spain and Poland as to the largest EU members - France, Germany and Britain. The proposed constitution included a new formula tilting the balance of power more toward the largest countries. France and Germany strongly favored this new formula but Spain and Poland refused to accept it.

The dispute represented the third time this year that France and Germany found themselves sharply at odds with other EU members. The first such occasion was the differences of opinion about the American war in Iraq, which turned bitter when French President Jacques Chirac imperiously informed the Eastern European countries that had expressed their support for the United States that they had missed an opportunity to "shut up."

Then last month France and Germany announced that they would refuse to obey a rule prohibiting any country belonging to the common European currency, the euro, from running a budget deficit greater than three percent of their gross national product.

It was the Germans who had demanded this rule as a condition for creating the euro in the first place, and the French and German governments had insisted that other countries fulfill its requirements.

At the heart of all three disputes is the suspicion of other Europeans that France and Germany are seeking a privileged, even a controlling, role for themselves in the EU. This prospect is particularly galling to the new Eastern European members, who struggled for almost half a century to free themselves from the domination of the Soviet Union and do not wish to surrender all of their new-found independence even to fellow democracies such as France and Germany.

Offensive as the idea may be to the smaller EU countries, however, the concentration of power within the Union in French and German hands does offer some advantages to Europe as a whole.

The remarkable progress Europe has made in economic integration since World War II has come in no small part through cooperative Franco- German leadership. And without leadership of the kind their partnership has provided, the new, expanded EU may prove too unwieldy to function at all.

In that case, it would probably become simply a loose economic association, with its members lacking the capacity to act in unison in political and military affairs. In political and military terms, Europe would be merely a collection of wealthy but not very powerful countries with little influence on events outside their borders.

Given the vocal French and German opposition to American policy in Iraq, such an outcome might seem to be a favorable one for the United States. But a disunited EU would also be incapable of joining the United States as an effective partner on issues on which America and Europe do agree.

The member countries of the EU, old and new, will spend the coming months continuing their effort to find a voting formula on which all can agree, and more broadly, seeking a way to forge ever closer political and military ties with one another. Whether they succeed or fail, the United States, along with the rest of the world, will be affected by the result.

Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World," is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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