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Thursday, 7 December, 2000, 16:49 GMT
Fears of a European superstate
French farmers block the road at Calais during the fuel protests
French farmers block the road at Calais during the fuel protests
BBC's European Affairs correspondent William Horsley

Behind the fuel protests that raged across Europe in recent months was a fear - for some Europeans - of a European superstate.

Many of the protesters felt frustrated that key decisions about their lives are no longer taken at national level, by leaders they have elected.

Some fear that plans for another great leap forward in European integration will come at the Nice summit.

Heads of government are trying to agree a treaty on sharing their national sovereignty in new areas.

Chris Patten:
Chris Patten: Not on a journey to a superstate
But British European Commissioner Chris Patten, along with other leading figures in the European Union, rejects all talk of a superstate in the making.

"People can't go on pretending that we are on a journey to some ghastly superstate," he said. "That's never going to happen. It's a dumb argument and we should thump it on the head."

All the member governments recognise that there are many things, from building transport networks to exerting influence abroad, which they can only do effectively by pooling their strength with others.

The Nice summit presents a challenge - perhaps also a crisis - because the EU is growing too big to manage.

With 12 states, mostly in Eastern Europe, now negotiating to join the club, the present members face a choice - to give up even more of their own government power to make the union work smoothly or risk total paralysis.

Nation states undermined

But even without a further centralisation of powers, the EU already exercises a strong, supranational authority across Europe in many areas.

Although French farmers are reeling from the drop in prices following the latest scare about mad cow disease, they, like other farmers across the EU, must accept common EU directives and laws aimed at stamping out the disease and protecting consumers.

Nicve protests
The summit has attracted protest from a variety of groups
The European Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg, enforces EU laws across the whole union. To those suspicious about an emerging superstate, the court represents a sinister threat to the old nation-states of Europe.

Yet even the president of France, with all its Gallic pride, has declared his support for a formal constitution for the European Union - real proof to some that a superstate is being hatched.

Mr Chirac wants it to be based on a Charter of Fundamental Rights which has been drawn up at the bidding of those states like Germany which are striving for a federal Europe with much greater powers.

Joschka Fischer:
Joschka Fischer: EU must be a single federation
In this great debate on Europe's future, the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has proposed the most radical ideas. He says the EU must in the end become a single federation, with its political leader chosen by direct elections among all of Europe's citizens.

After that it seems hard to deny that a blueprint for a superstate does exist. The Portugese minister, Francisco Seixas da Costa, thinks the Germans are going much too far.

"I have many doubts that this can fly," he said.

Drawing-board

"The Germans are trying to make Europe look like its own country. Europe needs to be made according to the will of citizens.

"If we are to be too voluntaristic in certain areas, we may risk having the union divided indefinitely. And if you want to maintain calling it a union, we need to have everybody united."

A failure to agree at Nice would be seen as the biggest setback in the history of European integration.

Nice will give a glimpse of the mammoth size of the proposed European Union of the future, as the leaders of 13 more candidate countries are also invited.

The outcome may reveal whether a union of the future with a population of 500 million, is viable at all, or if the would-be unifiers of Europe may have to go back to the drawing-board.


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