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EU Struggles to Find Common Ground

As Brussels summit opens, disputes threaten to weaken the alliance. Analysts predict a period of stagnation lies ahead for the bloc.

June 17, 2005|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

BRUSSELS — Leaders of a Europe in turmoil opened two days of talks here Thursday, awash in bitter disputes over money and politics that threaten the future of the continent's 25-nation alliance.

The European Union, established decades ago to bring peace and stability to a land emerging from world war, is struggling to come to terms with a new reality after a jarring revolt by voters, economic malaise, mounting bureaucratic inefficiency and public fears of overly swift expansion.

Europe "is at a crossroads," said Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the executive European Commission. Failure to recover momentum "will plunge the EU into permanent crisis and paralysis," he warned.

The summit was intended to show that the EU was unified and moving on after its hallmark constitution was torpedoed recently by voters in France and the Netherlands.

Instead, negotiations on the alliance's budget for the next seven years were at a stalemate Thursday, with the region's biggest economies unable to agree over issues such as farm subsidies. And calls to shelve the constitution were growing.

"This is one of the most difficult summits we have ever had," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose nation holds the EU's rotating presidency and is chairing the summit.

The mood was subdued Thursday afternoon as heads of state and government and foreign ministers from EU states, along with key alliance officials, came together in a modern, somewhat drab building named for a 16th century Belgian philosopher who studied Stoicism.

Many leaders appeared resigned to having to abandon some of the fundamental tenets and tools that not so long ago united them in a formidable alliance.

In addition to the stillborn constitution and the endangered $120-billion-a-year budget, casualties could include the EU's most important foreign policy device: expansion and the offer of membership.

"If you look at the short term, you'd be tempted to say the European Union is dead," said Federiga Bindi, director of the European Office for Rome's University Tor Vergata.

Bindi and other analysts noted, however, that the EU has weathered severe crises before and managed to survive. They predicted that it would again stagger through; rather than collapse, the EU is more likely to be entering a period of stagnation that further undermines its ability to muster clout and influence world events.

Leaders here will be looking beyond the agenda of the two-day summit and reassessing the very political identity of the bloc and its core philosophy.

Member states are divided roughly into two factions: those, such as France and Germany, that favor a strongly integrated union with social protections and careful economic planning; and others, such as Britain, that favor a more loosely connected, expanding alliance with free-market reform and less regulation.

The latter group is also more friendly to Washington.

Some analysts predicted that economic and political tensions could continue to pull at the two factions, with a gradual unraveling of the alliance -- but not a sudden and catastrophic breakdown.

Analysts throughout Europe say the EU will have to redefine itself to generate new dynamism and avoid being cast adrift. With the Cold War or similar threats no longer uniting the continent, the union must find a new mission that resonates with an unhappy public.

"Europeans are in psychological disarray, because they do not see a direction, and they do not see a direction because they don't see leadership," said Ana Palacio, the former foreign minister of Spain and head of the Spanish parliamentary committee on Europe. Leaders will have to devise a new vision, she said in a telephone interview from Madrid, that addresses serious internal structural problems instead of catering to superficial fears.

If Europeans do see a common threat, it's in a globalized economy with countries such as China and India that are quickly out-pacing and out-competing the continent's sluggish national economies, which are saddled with high unemployment and expensive welfare systems.

Case in point: Several shoe manufacturers, especially in Italy and Spain, are protesting what they say is the unfair flooding of the European market by cheaply made Chinese shoes at lower-than-cost prices. The dispute has become a major trade row, with the EU launching a probe into possible dumping and threatening to impose fines on China.

The setbacks that have hit the EU in recent weeks reflect a resurgence in national interests over regional unity.

Moreover, EU leaders are paying the price for having failed to consult their publics on most of the important decisions of the last decade of European integration.

"I think it's about reconnecting. The gulf is huge between what the EU does on a day-to-day basis and people's understanding of it," said Alasdair Murray, deputy director of the London-based Center for European Reform. "People do not feel part of it."

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