European Constitution: A Band of Hostile Brothers

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The European Union's expansion from ten to 25 this year did not get off to an auspicious start.

The row between Poland, the biggest of the new entrants, and Germany, its neighbour and biggest trading partner, led to talks over the proposed European constitution collapsing in acrimony.

The row was over voting procedures in the council of ministers. The Nice treaty of 2000 agreed a system of weighted voting to overcome the new entrants' fears of being swamped by the bigger states. This also suited some existing members, notably Spain, who resent France and Germany's dominance. So Poland got 27 votes (as did Spain and Portugal) - only two behind Britain, Germany and France at 29 votes each.

Nice left open how enlargement could avoid complete paralysis in an already creaky decision-making process. Talks over a new European constitution were meant to overcome this. But any overhaul inevitably meant challenging the weighted voting system agreed at Nice.

Germany asked why Poland and Spain should get nearly twice as many votes in the council of ministers when their combined population is roughly the same as Germany's. It wanted 'double majority' voting, as proposed in the draft constitution, to replace weighted voting. A simple majority in the council of ministers, with each member state having one vote, would decide issues - provided the votes of the majority accounted for 60 percent of the EU's population.

Germany's stance infuriated both Poland and Spain. Poland was already smarting at the way in which President Chirac of France had bluntly told the new east European entrants that they shouldn't have vocalised their support for the US over Iraq (Poland has been the keenest of the ex Warsaw Pact countries to send troops to Iraq at the behest of its new imperialist master).

The German assumption that Poland would automatically fall in behind its neighbour led Poland's foreign minister to complain, 'Unfortunately, there are still too many people in the European Union who think of enlargement as a kind of grace offered to the poorer brothers in Europe.'

The talks might well have reached agreement if Spain's compromise had been followed. But Poland, soon to be the sixth biggest member, was intransigent.

The Franco-German axis is the driving force behind the new constitution. They are happy to see an EU divided between an inner core, based on greater financial, economic and political integration, and an outer periphery. An indication of the degree to which they are prepared to bend EU rules to serve their interests can be seen in the way in which they happily flouted the stability pact governing the euro while insisting that the new entrants observe very strict currency regulations.

But Poland is not an independent player. Behind Poland stands Britain (and the US). Britain was quietly relieved to see the constitutional talks collapse - not just for domestic reasons over perceived loss of national sovereignty, but because it is prepared to use the smaller countries as a counterweight to France and Germany's ambitions.

This opposition, which has been so starkly revealed over the war in Iraq and the question of a European defence force, goes to the heart of the problem which dogs the EU project - what is its global role?

Economically its weight is on a level with the US. This may allow it to face down the US in a tariff war over steel. But politically it punches well below its weight. It lacks a coherent foreign policy and the ability to intervene decisively in the rest of the world. As events in former Yugoslavia showed, it could not play an important military role even in its own back yard - except with the say-so of the US.

Sections of European capital, notably French and German, would like to enhance their global competitiveness. Developments in the Middle East have painfully reminded them of their weakness in relation to the US. A streamlined, militarised EU could not, of course, displace the US - but it couldn't be pushed around in the same way.

Other sections of European capital see the EU differently. They see the advantages of a single market and some pooling of sovereignty - but not in a way that jeopardises their interests elsewhere in the world (Britain is the obvious example here). The newer entrants (particularly the former Stalinist satellites) are eager to be part of the EU - but not in ways that tie them exclusively to Germany, the most powerful state economically, despite stagnation, or to France's political ambitions.

They fear that they will never share the prosperity promised by membership. As it is, the prediction is that it will take 50 to 90 years (depending on assumed annual growth rates of 4 or 3 percent) for the eastern European countries joining in 2004 and 2007 to catch up with the 15, themselves assumed to be growing at 2 percent per year.

The hero of Christopher Isherwood's 1935 novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains, complained that 'the countries of Europe are nothing more or less than a collection of mousetraps. In some of them, the cheese is of a superior quality, that is the only difference.'

The postwar construction of a Europe without borders was meant to overcome that. Instead it has turned Europe into a giant mousetrap in which competing imperialist interests continue to strive for advantage as they did in the past.