The plenary chamber in the European Parliament's new premises in Strasbourg from the outside resembles an oversized beehive. Entering the diplomatic gallery, the high-tech interior reminds the visitor of a Hollywood film set, the complete absence of natural light (the total exclusion of the outside world has disturbing implications symbolically, which the architect in his wisdom most likely overlooked) and the cold colour-scheme conjured up images more familiar from the world of high budget sci-fi than political debate (to my mind, the chamber looks like the bridge of some massive star ship).
I had come to the inner sanctum of European democratic legitimation to listen to the President in Office of the Council pontificate on the French Presidency's programme in the realm of what is dubbed as "external actions" and, more particularly, on the following day, to Commissioner Günter Verheugen's (responsible for enlargement) statement concerning remarks he made in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung on 2 September, which sparked off a headline-stealing controversy, thereby stealing a march on the assembled Foreign Ministers representing the member states at an informal meeting in Evian.
Mr Pierre Moscovici, French Minister of European Affairs and acting President of the Council for the six months of France's tenure at the helm of the Council of Ministers, dutifully trotted out what was expected of him. Announcing the timetable for the next few months after the summer recess, he affirmed enlargement as the EU's top priority, describing it as a major challenge for the years to come and expressing a wish to keep up the momentum of the accession negotiations. The role of the Nice summit (the culmination of the activities of the French presidency) would be to produce a Treaty setting out the parameters of institutional reform within the EU, which would ensure that the first new members from the candidate countries of Central and Eastern Europe would be welcomed into a dynamic EU on schedule.
Echoing sentiments previously voiced by our Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, Mr Moscovici mentioned in passing that he deemed the time ripe to break the negotiating deadlock and move from stagnant repetition to the real nitty-gritty of compromises. The French presidency would continue pursuing negotiations assiduously, taking them as far as they could be taken during the remainder of France's term of office during which the way would be paved for future Presidencies to make further progress.
A debate on enlargement would be held in October, followed by a round of negotiations at ministerial level with representatives of each of the candidate countries on either 21 November or 5 December, which would be preceded by two ambassadorial level meetings (in the context of the accession negotiations the ambassadors act as chief negotiators and their role is therefore crucial). At the General Affairs Council on 20 November, the current member states would have an opportunity to debate the progress made by each of the candidate countries on the basis of the Commission's annual reports on that subject. The aim of this debate would be to ascertain where the principle outstanding difficulties lay on a chapter-by-chapter basis and assess how best to proceed. On 23 November at Sochaux, the 15 Foreign Ministers would meet with their counterparts from the candidate countries.
Accession date depends on candidates
Mr Moscovici reiterated the commitment undertaken at the Helsinki summit to the effect that the EU would be ready to embrace new member states as of 1 January 2003, although the date of de facto accession would hinge on the ratification process in the EU's existing members. He was at pains to stress, however, that every one of the candidate countries would have to be capable of putting the acquis communautaire into effect and to apply them in real terms rather than simply entering them into the statute books (where they would remain a dead letter, much like the rights once accorded us in our various constitutions, which were liberal on paper, but bore no relationship whatsoever to practice). He recognised that this was a huge task for the aspirants, but they could count on the EU's unflagging support in helping them to attain the aims they had set for themselves.
The debate which followed was insipid and pedestrian, not the inspiring stuff, which the new Europe ought to be built of.
The following day, by contrast, the atmosphere in the chamber was electric, fired by the expectation of a public savaging of Commissioner Verheugen in the wake of his remarks in the German daily the previous Saturday.
What had he said that had caused such a stir? He had, quite simply, broken a taboo by suggesting that it might be a good idea to consult the citizens of his home country, Germany, on the subject of enlargement by means of holding a referendum. Putting enlargement to the vote in this way would, he claimed, "force the elite to respond to the concerns of the population." In Germany it would be unfortunate if the same mistake were to be committed as was the case with the introduction of the euro (in itself a comparison bound to elicit criticism, since the single currency ever was the bugbear of dyed-in-the-wool eurosceptics), which had taken place "behind the back of the population." Treaties, which altered the character of the state, should be given the consent of the populace in the shape of a referendum. Enlargement represented such a project.
Verheugen alluded to the presumed gulf between bureaucrats and the people they supposedly serve by referring to the elites being forced to leave their ivory towers and engage in debate. That a plebiscite on enlargement or any other topic is precluded by the German constitution rendered his arguments hypothetical. He went on to blame the member states for ignoring the justified fears of their citizens about the risks of enlargement, accusing them of leaving the drudgery (the original, Drecksarbeit, was seized on by the English-speaking press and rendered as dirty work) of preparing to the Commission alone. The Germans had a tendency to concentrate on the negative rather than the positive aspects of enlargement, although Verheugen himself was in no doubt as to the historical opportunity it offered in terms of peace, stability and prosperity for the whole of the continent.
What the Hungarians say
The reaction in the Hungarian press was fairly muted. Following the flurry of denials concerning secret diplomacy and a move towards making accession conditional on a series of referendums and reassurances to the candidate countries that everything was proceeding according to plan, Verheugen's words were reported objectively. His gaffe was regarded as nothing more than a hiccup, not a serious prospect, although rumours reportedly doing the rounds amongst the Foreign Ministers at Evian to the effect that Verheugen was merely acting on Schröder's instructions.
Gábor Horváth, spokesman for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gave a measured reaction, though he was clearly hedging his bets: no referendum had ever previously been held in conjunction with a round of enlargement and there would be no justification for suchlike now. Nevertheless, winning public opinion in the 15 member states over for the historic project it embodied was extremely important and an unofficial referendum would be the appropriate tool to reach that goal.
In an interview in Die Welt am Sonntag, the German weekly, Hungarian President Ferenc Mádl clarified his stance on the issue of a suitable date for accession by maintaining that Hungary should be admitted in three years' time at the very latest, provided the West took its dream of a truly united Europe seriously, since the country would have completed all the tasks required of it in the run-up to accession by then. According to the President, Hungary ought to be amongst the first five to join.
Gyula Krajczár in Népszabadság ("Verheugen helps," 5 September 2000) gave his usual refreshingly witty perspective on developments:
For well nigh on a decade the governments of the Union have not deemed enlargement to be an important subject for the broader swathes of their public opinion. Sometimes in conjunction with an opposing expression of opinion here and there they flared up in indignation and have even seen fit to include the matter as a Schlagwort [catchword, buzzword, ed] on the list of objections to Haider. That they should engage in an intensive explanation of the point of the plan to enlarge for the benefit of the public is something they have not considered important. Political and civil forces have, however, latched on to the counter arguments and fears and—even if only on a back burner—have been churning out their own propaganda. If one moreover keeps on hearing the same old thing about a subject that one is not especially interested in over a long period of time then one tends to believe in it as an accurate reflection of reality. The advocates of enlargement (or, to be more precise, those, who are able to imagine that some day, at some unspecified future stage it might just about prove possible for some new members to be permitted to join the Union) would in these circumstances prefer the decisions on enlargement not to be "thrown open to democratisation." With Verheugen they are buckling down to getting a taste of their own medicine.
I could compare Verheugen's raising of the question to the bridegroom, who examines the state of the conjugal sheets in the full knowledge that the happy couple have already lived together happily for many years. The most awful aspect of the whole episode is that this fine, upstanding German is charged with the task of managing the business of enlargement within the Commission. That's what he gets paid for. Therefore, we don't need opponents after all.
No need to panic
At least we in the candidate countries are not immature enough to succumb to a knee-jerk reaction and panic, howling hysterically about indefinite postponement: the underlying assumption in Western protests triggered by Verheugen's statements is, of course, that enlargement would be postponed indefinitely if left to the devices of the electorate—not exactly a resounding vote of confidence in the undertaking on the part of Europe's self-styled visionaries. A recent poll published in Eurobarometer revealed that a meagre 27 per cent of respondents looked upon the admission of new member states as a priority for the EU. German respondents were the most sceptical: only one in five rated enlargement as such. The implications of this dismal result were examined in a leader in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by Thomas Schmidt (5 September 2000).
The problem of legitimation could not be overlooked, not if any semblance of democracy were to be retained. Was Verheugen entitled as a private individual to call into question the project for which he was responsible in an official capacity? Too little had been done in Verheugen's eyes to make enlargement palatable, yet he had been taken to task publicly for daring to point this out. That he had only himself to blame for this was eloquently argued by Helmut Bünder in the same newspaper the following day: Verheugen has always been the one, who has insisted—vociferously—on keeping things chugging along at an exaggerated pace, and it was none other than he, who had given rise to doubts about whether the precarious balancing act between speed and thoroughness of preparation for accession would succeed.
Furthermore, it had always been Verheugen, who had harped on and on about specific dates for enlargement to be proffered before candidate countries in spite of the impossibility of clear answers on when the unavoidable preparations would be completed. Labelling his approach a "policy of appeasement," Bünder likened it to a sort of "lie back and think of the Empire" reflex to borrow from the Anglo-Saxon rather than the Teutonic idiom when it came to assessing the likely impact of accession on the current member states, thereby ignoring the genuine anxieties of Germans and Austrians living in frontier regions about huge influxes of immigrants and commuters.
Schmidt likens the process of European integration concentrated in the hands of the few experts in possession of the acumen and esoteric knowledge needed to hold the EU apparatus together to a ghost train without a driver speeding through all of the real stations. Continuing to keep the man in the street out of this process, depriving him of a say in a matter, which will ultimately have visible effects on his day to day life, could prove pernicious in the long run. I agree, in that it cannot be productive or desirable for the citizens of the current member states to feel that they have been steamrollered on this issue so vital to our common interests.
In the plenary chamber in Strasbourg, Romano Prodi, President of the Commission, was quite unequivocal in his espousal of the enlargement cause: the Commission's commitment to it was unconditional. The Commission operated in accordance with the Council's mandate and would do everything in its power to help the negotiations progress. Enormous generosity would have to be shown by the EU in opening its doors by 1 January 2003 and it would have to set its own house in order to make itself equal to the challenge.
Democratic support from the peoples of Europe was essential to its success, but the Commission would not interfere in what was the preserve of each national government. Prodi and Verheugen would leave no stone unturned in explaining what was at stake, to make it clear that enlargement was an unprecedented opportunity rather than an ominous threat, guaranteeing peace for all of Europe. He was convinced that Verheugen and the European Parliament endorsed Commission policy in that respect.
And what of Verheugen? After maintaining that the interview was intended purely for German internal consumption (a feeble defence!!), he pointed out that the mention of referendums cropped up in relation to the Treaty of Maastricht rather than enlargement. If the text were read in a spirit of fairness, its contents could not be misconstrued along the lines it had been. The message he had intended to convey was that enlargement was wanted, it was, moreover, wanted as swiftly and thoroughly as possible.
Not content with this, Verheugen went on to assert that his concern was to give a process, which could easily assume the status of nothing more than a dry technical exercise, a soul. Peace and stability had to be guaranteed throughout Europe by means of enlargement. Young democracies had to be given the chance to participate in the political and economic development of Europe on an equal footing. There was no alternative to bolstering Europe's role in the context of international competition.
The Commission's progress reports due to be published in the autumn would demonstrate that the candidate countries had made considerable progress in becoming ripe for accession. New elements for the negotiating strategy would be put forward by the Commission likewise in the autumn, which would enable negotiations to proceed even more swiftly and allow for the substantive issues to be tackled (in Hungary's case these would include energy policy, taxation, company law, the free movement of goods, foreign trade, transport and the environment).
The close co-operation of the European Parliament and the broadest possible support of the ordinary citizens of Europe would be crucial in determining whether the project would stand or fall. Verheugen himself had always been a warm advocate of preaching the gospel of enlargement to the masses. A democratic debate was called for.
He was at pains to stress that neither he nor the Commission had the remotest intention of introducing new conditions for enlargement in the decision-making process: the overall strategy was laid down by Council and the Commission merely followed the instructions it had been given.
The final verdict? Regardless of whether enlargement may be a ghost train or not, it still appears to be firmly on track.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 4 September 2000
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Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 5 and 6 September
Magyar Nemzet, 4 September
Népszabadság, 5 September
Népszava, 5 September
The verbatim report of proceedings of the European Parliament, 5 and 6 September