Nice Try

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You could call it a tale of 15 cities, each of them named Nice. For all the blancmange about the "ever closer union" to which the European Union aspires, judgments diverged widely along national borders on the outcome of the marathon European Council on the French Riviera. French President Jacques Chirac, who chaired the summit at the end of France's six-month stint as president of the Council, was so frustrated at one point that he suggested the conclave simply break up and rejoin the battle later somewhere outside France. Yet by the time the fraught negotiations finally ended, Chirac was proclaiming the Nice summit a historic success.

Diplomatic politesse prevented any of the leaders of the other 14 E.U. states from publicly contradicting Chirac's lofty judgment. The final agreement did, after all, fulfill necessary conditions for the Union to begin accepting new members from among the 12 mostly Central European states now negotiating with Brussels. But there was plenty of grumbling not only over what wasn't achieved, but also over the endless haggling and strong-arming that was needed to achieve anything at all.

True, the French inherited a tough brief. Three and a half years ago at another European Council meeting in Amsterdam, Europe's leaders had proved unable to agree in key areas that had to be clarified before the Union could embark on enlargement. With 27 members instead of 15, sheer arithmetic seemed to dictate that not every member state could have its own commissioner; that more decisions had to be reached by majority voting rather than unanimity; and that the weight of national votes in the Council, like the seats in the European Parliament, had to be reapportioned.

Just a few months ago, the European Commission seemed confident that the Nice summit would move beyond these so-called Amsterdam leftovers. But the leftovers became the main course, despite having been chewed over for more than 320 hours by a special intergovernmental conference since early this year.

The fundamental rift at Nice opened between the larger countries Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain and smaller ones. The proposals first made by France would have greatly increased the weight of the large at the expense of the small. No surprise, most of the candidate countries figure among the smaller states.

France also managed to rile its bigger allies. The U.K. had to move to dial back French designs for a European defense apparatus that Britain feared could end up undermining nato more than propping it up. And Germany was clearly confounded by the steely intent with which France opposed its bid for more Berlin votes than Paris votes in the Council even though there are 23 million more Germans than French.

In the end, European leaders knew the bar they had to clear was enlargement. They flopped over it with poor style and nary a centimeter to spare.