Break to Avoid a Breakup

The Franco-German axis is proving a nightmare for European unity. Within a single month, Gerhard Schroeder's Germany and Jacques Chirac's France first destroyed the EU's Stability Pact and endangered European monetary union by demanding--and receiving--special status for French and German fiscal deficits. Now the axis has crushed hopes of passing a new European constitution in Brussels by demanding the so-called "double majority" rule, which would seriously weaken medium-size and smaller countries' voting power by comparison to what was agreed three years ago in Nice.

European integration can't afford further defeats. Trust has been decimated. Anger overflows. Small and medium-sized EU countries feel tricked. Will these countries continue to sacrifice for the common European good when, time after time, the big countries tell them to go to the back of the bus and be grateful for the ride? It's time for a pause in European integration efforts if only to avoid a complete, irreparable rupture of relations between nations that are supposed to be uniting.

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The Germans, in particular, need a time out to reflect upon the wisdom of their recent bullyboy tactics. Gerhard Schroeder is providing disastrous leadership for Germany. The country's "new nationalism" will end in tears for both Germany and Europe. Have today's Germans really forgotten that Europeanism is not the best alternative for Germany--it is the only alternative?

Yet, after last week's Brussels summit ended in failure, the Germans and their French allies are talking up a "two-speed" Europe, with the so-called "pioneer group" of Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries--Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg--going faster and pursuing deeper integration projects than the others.

A "two-speed" Europe is, however, a euphemism for abandoning or opting out of European integration by Europe's big three. It would decisively split Europe by allowing the big countries and their satellites to go their own way. (The Dutch never would go along with this.) A "two-speed" Europe means the end of the EU as we know it.

Of course, if the big countries are not willing to sacrifice any measure of national sovereignty for the overall European good, then a united Europe is doomed. That is why the debate over the Stability Pact was so important--and why its demise is so disconcerting: the Germans and the French proved willing to sacrifice little, if anything, for the common European interest.

Now, after the failure to endorse the draft EU constitution, Schroeder bitterly complains that "some nations are representing their national interests and have left the European idea behind." Take a good look in the mirror, Gerhard.

But, notwithstanding recent defeats, it is far too early to give up on an integrated Europe. Chirac and Schroeder--and the current weaknesses in France and Germany that created them--will not last forever. Perhaps improved economic growth will give these countries the strength to throw off their present leaders.

Until France and Germany do change, Europe's game must be a waiting game. Time can solve Europe's problem. That's why a pause now makes good sense.

The smaller EU countries also could benefit from a time out. Even though the big countries are trying to marginalize them at almost every turn, the small countries cannot unite to fight the common enemy.

This is because they often see themselves having more in common with the big countries than the other small ones. Belgium, for example, is virtually a satellite of France. The same is true of Luxembourg. Austria is closer to Germany than Finland, and so on. Unless the small countries unite on a common front, they will continue to prove easy targets of the big nationalistic players.

On the issue of big versus small countries, Europe has a lot to learn from the United States. Big states comfortably co-exist with small states in the US because America has a bicameral system in which the House of Representatives is based on population, but each state elects two members of the Senate.

The system is very elastic, and has shown itself able to accommodate an increasing number of states. The coming accession of ten new members to the EU would be made much simpler were Europe to find its own equally flexible system.