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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 December 2005, 07:59 GMT
EU's year of stress and strain
By Mark Mardell
Europe editor, BBC News, Brussels

The ambassador, looking back at the year, told me: "We have a saying in Czech, if it's a good result, the process has been good".

Well, that was in the euphoria of having agreed a budget that at one time seemed impossible, but "all's well that ends well" is a remarkably cheery verdict on the European Union's year of pain.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at Brussels summit
Mr Blair did not get the sweeping EU budget reforms he wanted

The major injury was inflicted by the "No" referendum votes in France and the Netherlands, sapping morale and purpose from the EU's leaders.

But this was preceded by the European Parliament flexing its muscles.

All it did was reject a commissioner because of his Roman Catholic views on homosexuality, but some think this unsteadied the Commission and robbed it of courage.

And in June, when UK Prime Minister Tony Blair vetoed a budget and declared war on the Common Agricultural Policy, the EU was stunned.

I mean, almost literally. Not surprised, but temporarily deprived of the ability to think or move by the force of these blows.

The agonies that the EU suffered this year were growing pains.

According to your political taste, you can argue that these were the normal twinges and emotional problems of healthy adolescence or a Frankenstein monster rejecting bits unnaturally bolted on to a grotesque body. But growing pains, nonetheless.

Constitution under fire

Discerning the reasons behind the "No" votes on the constitution has been a bit of a political parlour game. Perhaps it was not a very good document. It certainly was not a very inspiring one.

There surely has to be a debate on whether the EU is a geographical entity or a state of mind
Mark Mardell

There were doubtless French men, as hostile to the EU as British Conservative Bill Cash - who voted "No" to reject the whole project.

There were probably Dutch women who voted "No" because they were disappointed at the lack of fast political integration.

And some who were doing the political equivalent of kicking the cat.

But surely overall it was a rejection of the implications of enlargement, the growth of the EU to 25 states, and a feeling the EU was too distant and didn't do anything useful?

Tony Blair picked up the last point and used his presidency as a bully pulpit for a more economically relevant Union.

That argument will continue in fits and starts, fought over the services directive and other pieces of legislation.

Enlargement angst

But while there have been wrinkled noses at the idea of Turkey joining there has been no grown-up debate about enlargement.

In 2006 that will happen. The Austrians, who are next in the hot seat, want the EU to look towards the Balkans.

French President Jacques Chirac
President Chirac suffered a humiliating "Non" from voters

There will be questions over whether Romania and Bulgaria are ready to join, and how much it will cost. And then the bigger question - is that it?

Ukraine, perhaps. Switzerland and Norway, if they ever wanted to join. But after that?

There surely has to be a debate on whether the EU is a geographical entity or a state of mind.

And in 2006 European leaders will get over their trauma and discover their tongues over the constitution.

The Austrians and Germans clearly want to bring bits of it back, which will cause fury in some quarters.

French President Jacques Chirac says he has a cunning plan for greater democracy. The old idea of an "inner core" of nations ready for greater political union will be back. But this is fraught.

On the one hand, it is easy to see that a 25-strong EU cannot manage very well with the current rules.

On the other, it is clearly - although not clear to some - awkward to ignore the democratic will of millions of people.

Some people worry that politics no longer deals in the big questions. The European Union does. In 2006, like a tortured teenager, it will continue to ask "Why are we here?"

Mark Mardell's weekly Europe Diary returns on 5 January.


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