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A task for Bertie?

BILL KIRKMAN examines the forthcoming enlargement of the EU. Will it be an easy job?


Yes to the Nice Treaty? ... concerning the EU's eastward expansion.

AT the beginning of this year, Bertie Ahern, the Prime Minister of Ireland, took over the Presidency of the European Union (that is, the political leadership) from the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Given the state of things in the EU, it is an unenviable job; it might indeed be seen as a poisoned chalice.

Last month, the EU summit meeting, which was supposed to agree a new constitution, failed because of disagreement over the voting weight that should be attached to different member countries. In fact, the disagreement brought into the open profound differences over how the EU should be run.

During the six months of the Irish presidency, Bertie Ahern will have to try to get constitutional negotiations started again. He has made it clear that he has no illusions about the difficulty, emphasising that it will take time.

The fundamental issue is one of balance of power. It has always existed, but, hitherto, it has been possible to keep it more or less in check by a kind of fudge, helped by the fact that the sometimes opposing interests of the big players in the EU — the United Kingdom, France and Germany — have produced a sort of uneasy equilibrium. The important new factor is the forthcoming enlargement of the EU by the accession of 10 new member countries at the beginning of May. When this happens, the organisation will grow overnight from 15 members to 25.

In effect, this will change the balance (in sheer numbers, though not in real political and economic significance) from what President Bush rather disparagingly referred to as the "old Europe" to the new Europe of the east. The new members are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia — and, geographically different, Cyprus and Malta.

The realities of power, rather than ideological differences, make it inevitable that the big countries will simply not be willing to have their policies dictated by the smaller ones. All member countries are equal — but some are definitely more equal than others. Those people who have a vision of a federal Europe will have to accept that federations cannot be imposed. In fact, the larger the number and the more disparate the nature of the membership, the more limited will be the issues on which there can be a common united voice. Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission (that is, in effect, the senior official), has predicted that if the constitutional negotiations are not resumed and brought to a satisfactory conclusion, Europe may end up working at two speeds. He put this as a warning; in fact it is a statement of the obvious.

One factor which cannot be ignored is that there is a lack of popular enthusiasm for the great pan-European vision which Prodi embraces. This is notoriously true of the U.K., but this country is not unique in this respect. Being part of Europe is one thing; it is an obvious fact, and it clearly implies accepting European rather than national control over many aspects of political and economic life. The mood, however, in much of the unenlarged EU is "thus far and no further". A good reflection of attitudes is the level of knowledge — or rather, ignorance — of basic facts. Few people, for example, would be able off the cuff to name the 10 acceding countries.

Meanwhile, within the EU there is a kind of ballet of members forging alliances of self-interest. This is the reality which faces Bertie Ahern as he takes up the political leadership.

It is not surprising that he has already counselled caution about the chances of resuming the constitutional talks. It is not surprising because, as he contemplates the wider European scene, he is constantly reminded at the more local level of the difficulty of finding common ground between irreconcilable political interests. I refer of course to Northern Ireland, where years of patient negotiation, led by the British and Irish governments, have still not produced a workable agreement. Indeed, the latest round of negotiations, as I discussed in a recent "Cambridge Letter", collapsed only a few weeks before the abortive EU summit.

Resumed discussions on a new constitution for the EU; agreement to bring unionists and nationalists back into a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland — either or both could happen in the next six months. It is certainly possible, and Bertie Ahern will doubtless be working hard to achieve both. I would not put my money on either outcome, in Euros or any other currency.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. E-mail him at:

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