As European Union grows, leaders try to decentralize – European Union leaders trying to pass legislation that will allow citizens to identify closely with new centralized bureaucracy

As European Union grows, leaders try to decentralize – European Union leaders trying to pass legislation that will allow citizens to identify closely with new centralized bureaucracy – Brief Article

Jason Keyser

Europeans are skeptical of the European Union, and many complain about bureaucrats with agendas that favor their own countries. But ail this may be changing in a gentler, kinder EU.

The European Union may be getting bigger, but some say it feels smaller — the result of citizen-friendly policies intended to bring people closer to the governing process. Launched in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome, the European Union began with only six members: France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Today, it has become an economic behemoth — 15 nations with a combined population of 370 million people — adding Britain, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and Austria.

In the last few months, the 15-nation bloc has rapidly pursued further expansion and integration. Eleven nations locked themselves into a common currency, the euro, that will arrive Jan. 1, and the EU is negotiating with six new potential members in Central and Eastern Europe and Cyprus. Five more nations also are under consideration, bringing the possible total to 26.

As the union grows, so too its burgeoning bureaucracy in Brussels. Critics claim EU officials are losing touch with ordinary citizens. In Germany, pundits say forthcoming elections will depend partly on which candidates address public concern over the country’s 70 percent contribution to the EU budget. France was forced last year to draft highly unpopular belt-tightening measures to qualify for the unified currency, bruising public support for integration.

Larger nations must be more willing to sacrifice national interests to make progress toward political unification, concedes Dutch Ambassador Joris Vos. But EU leaders are seeking to bolster the union’s relevance to ordinary citizens through a series of legislative changes intended to make the union more accountable. “The direct role the union plays in people’s lives is more visible every day” says Vos.

Austria, which has the EU’s presidency for the first time, will host a summit in October focusing on ways to make the union more friendly to Europeans. Austrians also are renewing discussion of the long-talked-about but largely unrealized concept of “subsidiarity” the principle that decisionmaking should be passed down to the lowest appropriate level. Europeans like to joke about Brussels regulating the curvature of cucumbers and size of toilet seats. EU leaders hope that involving regional and local legislators will bring government closer to the people and avoid unnecessary bureaucratic red tape.

“Regional, local communities have an important part to play in the process of integration, because people tend to identify with the area they come from” says Austrian Ambassador Helmut Tuerk. “Subsidiarity is a vital means for bringing the European Union closer to its citizens and to enhance their acceptance of the European change.”

But EU leaders also worry that hastily decentralizing the EU’s decision-making could renationalize Europe. They want most of all to forge a common European identity. “The euro will be a quantum jump in making the EU a reality to people” says Vos. “As soon as they see the notes, they will realize, `Hey, there is a united Europe’ and they will ask, `What does it mean to me?'”

The American public appears to view the euro as good for both Europe and the United States. Only 18 percent of Americans believe the euro will harm U.S. interests, according to a Program on International Policy Attitudes study released in June. Indeed, the PIPA study shows Americans to be more enthusiastic about European integration than EU residents.

Critics believe EU leaders often are less interested in Europe’s unity as they are in defending the interests of their own countries. “For many, integration has already gone too far,” European Commission President Jacques Santer said in July. “There are voices calling for less Brussels.”

In numerous countries, many people view politics in general with distance, skepticism and sometimes even aversion, said Santer. “But since people do not feel the same emotional bonds between themselves and European institutions as they feel between themselves and nation states, these institutions are particularly vulnerable to such mood swings”

Europeans especially are concerned about employment, illegal immigration and international crime. Many argue that increasingly transparent borders are adding to the free flow of drugs. Others fear a wave of cheap labor from Eastern Europe that would drive down wages and working conditions and add to already growing unemployment in Western Europe. Germany, for example, has suffered a record high unemployment of close to 5 million, about 12 percent of the labor force.

EU leaders are seeking institutional reforms that include a revamped common agricultural policy, which currently subsidizes huge crop surpluses. Some argue for a smaller European Commission — each country has two representatives on this central governing body — and would replace consensus voting with majority voting to speed decisions. Many want to rethink the way nations’ votes are weighted in the European Council to be fairer to smaller countries. They have proposed a stronger European Parliament, the EU’s only elected body.

At a June summit in Amsterdam, representatives in the European Parliament netted some increases in authority, a move that indicates interest in returning power to the people, says Peter Rashish, executive vice president of the European Institute in Washington. The parliament has had a lot of authority over budgetary matters but, until recently, has not been active in policy-making.

Rashish also points out the EU’s concern that information be available to the public through transparent-style government, a closely guarded tradition in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark. The president of the European Central Bank now must testify to the European Parliament four times each year, a sign of growing accountability to the people.

Certainly these are positive signs, notes Rashish. The EU’s central governing bodies are reaching a critical mass beyond which further expansion without reform would lead to inefficiencies. And the countries under consideration for expansion — Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Poland, Estonia and Cyprus — present new challenges. Poland, for example, has a huge agricultural industry that accounts for 25 percent of its workforce; it is unlikely the EU can afford to subsidize it without reform.

Still, Europe watchers insist that the EU is in better condition than its poor reputation might suggest. Carl Lankowski, research director at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, believes Brussels is not as large as national politicians complain nor as distant from the average person. “There is a socialization process” says Lankowski. “Their fears are rational, but it takes a while to get used to the game, for individual states to become a union.”

And Europeans are beginning to show more interest in Europe in the wake of recent changes. Younger Europeans have left inter-European feuding behind and are identifying more with a common identity, according to Volker Schlegel, minister of economic and commercial affairs at the German Embassy. “Younger generations are understanding borders to be of less and less relevance.”

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