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Monday, 17 December, 2001, 21:42 GMT
Analysis: The future of Europe debate
Laeken demonstration
Which direction should the EU be headed?
By Heather Grabbe, Research Director of the Centre for European Reform

The Laeken European Council has decided to establish a convention to debate the future of the European Union for a year starting in March 2002, in preparation for the next inter-governmental conference in 2004.

The debate will start in earnest only after the French and German elections - in May and September 2002 respectively - and perhaps after a referendum on joining the euro in the UK.

Questions for the convention
How can the division of competences between member states and the EU be more transparent?
Who can best do which tasks?
How can the creeping expansion of EU competences be stemmed?
By the end of 2002, the EU will have developed a much stronger sense of urgency over reform as negotiations with the members-to-be will be drawing to a close.

The Laeken declaration set out a huge set of questions for the convention to answer, and the leaders agreed that there should be no taboos in its discussions.

But the agenda is so wide-ranging that it is hard to see exactly what the convention is to focus on.

The danger is that the convention will end up debating abstract points of principle, rather than concrete problems that the enlarged EU will face.

Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder
The debate will not begin in earnest until after French and German elections
That danger is all the greater for the number of voices competing to be heard in its discussions - more than 100 people from both the current member states and the candidate countries will be there, with representatives from governments, national parliaments, the European Parliament and the Commission, as well as observers.

The chair, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, will have a to give a very strong steer if the convention is to produce some useful results rather than descending into a free-for-all.

Changing responsibilities

The other problem with the Laeken agenda is that it is preoccupied with traditional remedies for familiar problems.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing
Giscard d'Estaing: Will need to steer the convention with a firm hand
There is a familiar refrain: decision-making is slow and complex, so let's try some more qualified majority voting. There are too many areas, like justice and home affairs, covered by inter-governmental co-operation, so let's involve the EU's institutions.

These are worthy issues, but they are about yesterday and today, and tomorrow will bring a whole new set of challenges.

The EU needs to look beyond the problems in its current system, and take into account how the political dynamics of the union will change when another 10 members join.

More member states and greater diversity will put the current structure under strain, but the difference will be more than arithmetical.

Instead, there will be a qualitative change in the union's ambitions and responsibilities.

Competing visions

In terms of ambitions, the enlarged union will be a more important actor on the world stage. But it will have more members with strong views on how it should act, so it needs to overhaul its ramshackle decision-making for foreign policy.

It will have to square a circle, between the small group of large countries who will drive foreign policy - due to their size and military assets - and the others, who will want to be involved but are unwilling or unable to play a major role.

The accession of 10 new members will give the EU new responsibilities because of its new border with many poor countries that need its help to achieve stability.

The union will need a much more coherent aid and development policy for its neighbourhood, and a more integrated set of external and internal security policies.

On these issues, the Laeken declaration has too few questions, and no answers.

The agenda for the convention is largely about what the EU should be, but the EU needs a debate about what it should do.

See also:

15 Dec 01 | Europe
EU plots future course
15 Dec 01 | Europe
Profile: Giscard d'Estaing
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