In the European union's corridors of power, the four biggest and economically strongest countries -- Germany, France, Britain, and Italy -- have always called the shots. Smaller nations such as Austria, Finland, and Denmark could never unite enough to hold their own against the dominant players. Those days, however, may be gone forever. As the EU plans to expand by 10 new members in May, 2004, smaller European nations are in a rebellious mood. Sick of being pushed around, they are joining together in an informal bloc aimed at fighting for their own interests as the EU rewrites its decision-making rules. And they are bringing most new members, mainly from Eastern and Central Europe, along with them. In September, representatives of 17 current and future EU members met in New York and Prague to hatch strategies.
The most immediate concern: that the Big Four will override their interests in current negotiations in Rome to hammer out a final version of the EU's first-ever constitution. "We can't let [the constitution] be bulldozed through," says Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who is a vocal defender of the rights of small countries. Most countries want guaranteed voting representation on the European Commission, the body that functions as the EU's Cabinet. To boost the commission's efficiency, the big countries -- especially France and Germany -- hope to limit the size of the EC, allowing the smaller nations to take part on a rotating basis rather than permanently. "Our concern is that the proposed constitution will reduce our rights while entrenching the power of the big countries," says an Austrian diplomat. Many small nations object to proposals for the 25 heads of state to appoint a President to serve 2 1/2 years -- in contrast to today's practice of rotating the post among countries every half-year.
Sounds like a lot of bureaucratic wrangling. But it's much more than that. If the nations can't find common ground, not only will the constitutional talks drag on but also the climate will be spoiled for tough decisions on the European budget, the Euro Stability & Growth Pact, and other key issues. The new Europe could become hopelessly bogged down. "We are seeing the real politics of the enlarged EU for the first time. The tensions [now] show the sort of thing we can expect in the future," says Kirsty Hughes, senior research fellow at Brussels' Center for European Policy Studies.
That's why Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the current EU president, is racing to forge a compromise. He desperately wants to complete talks on the constitution by his December deadline to allow time for all 25 states to ratify the document before May. But at a summit in Brussels on Oct. 16-17, he failed to persuade smaller nations to buy a deal that would ensure them EC seats -- but hand two places each to the large countries. "We do not support this," Vanhanen declared. Such a huge body would be ineffective, he adds.
Berlusconi vows to come up with new solutions by November. If he can't find a formula, it could take well into next year to wrap up the talks. The small-country lobby may just be starting to flex its muscles.
By David Fairlamb in Frankfurt
Edited by Rose Brady