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Europe's War of Big and Small

The debate on proposals for a new Constitution for the European Union, now entering its final stage in the so-called "European Convention," is turning into a power struggle between member states over rival visions of the future of the Union. In the past, the main axis of debate was usually been between federalists, who want a stronger EU, and inter-governmentalists, who want to preserve the member states' national autonomy. This remains true today. But the debate is now being distorted by a secondary struggle between the EU's large and small countries, with results that are sometimes paradoxical.

The immediate issue is management of the EU Council of Ministers. At present, the Council meets under the Presidency of an individual member state for a period of six months, at the end of which the Presidency rotates to another member state. France and Germany argue that this rotational system is dysfunctional, partly because of discontinuity, and have proposed that the Council should appoint a full-time permanent President for a period of five years. Their proposal was categorically rejected in a joint submission by 16 existing or future member states, all of them small countries, who insisted that the principle of rotation must be retained, as a symbol of the equality of all member states.

The stakes on this issue have now been raised two notches higher. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the President of the Convention, has formally endorsed the Franco-German proposal. The same day, the European Commission hit back with a strong criticism of the proposal, saying that it would create rival bureaucracies and a sense of confusion.

The deep reason for this particular argument is the EU's looming enlargement, which will take the membership from 15 to 25 countries in May 2004. When the European enterprise started, there were three small and three large countries; but almost all the new members are small countries. So after enlargement there will be six large and 19 small member states.