Europe Awaits Night of the Long Knives

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Italian riot police face protesters in the border town of Ventimiglia

The demonstrators outside the European Union's crucial summit are the usual suspects, but the fiercest clashes may be occurring behind closed doors. European leaders have given themselves three days at the French seaside resort of Nice to negotiate some of their most intractable differences over how to constitute their union and expand its membership from 15 to 28 states. And nobody's particularly optimistic about the outcome.

The demonstrators gathered outside the conference center trashed a bank Wednesday, but they appeared to be disappointed that their protests had not reached the scale of those mounted earlier against the WTO in Seattle and against the IMF in Prague. The protesters included everything from campaigners for independence for Sardinia to French students demanding free public transport — and a peasant farmer protesting globalization who brought his randy bull along, which wanted to mount anything it could find. There were farmers demanding adequate compensation for beef farmers. But these people are not your average Mr. and Mrs. Europe, and their grievances are not likely to attain critical mass.

The real drama is unfolding inside, behind closed doors in a round of old-style power politicking that is anything but democratic. It boils down to power equations and horse-trading, which presents the whole enterprise of European integration in a negative light. If disputes are settled, that will happen as a package deal in a kind of night of the long knives at the end of the three-day summit — and not surprisingly, many are already predicting that it will go into an unscheduled fourth day.

Slicing the pie

The distribution of power in the E.U. remains one of the central issues: Right now, Germany, France, Italy and Britain each have 10 votes, while smaller countries such as Spain are on a lower tier, going all the way down to Luxembourg, which has two votes. But Germany is demanding more votes than its partners, on the grounds that it has 20 million more people than any of the others in the top tier. That's a principle the French fiercely contest, on the grounds that the original union agreement entrenched a parity between Germany and France — but that was before reunification expanded Germany's population. The issue of weighting votes becomes exceedingly complex, though, once the E.U. expands to take in countries such as Turkey, which has 100 million people (20 million more than Germany) but economically remains far behind many of its prospective European partners.

Consensus vs. majority

The Germans aren't going to dig in their heels over the number of votes, but they're pushing hard to abandon the principle of consensus that still holds in some key decision-making areas, in favor of majority vote. Right now, the consensus principle gives every E.U. member state the right of veto on issues of trade policy, defense, taxation, immigration and the disbursement of E.U. structural funds among its needier members. Naturally, most of the bigger states want to maintain their power of veto on areas most dear to them — the British are reluctant to relinquish it over taxation issues; the French over trade policy; the Spanish over structural funds and even the Germans themselves over immigration issues. The problem, of course, is that if the principle is maintained, such tiny prospective member states as Estonia could conceivably block the will of the entire Union.

States' rights

The E.U'.s trouble in solving many of the outstanding issues reflects a swing of the pendulum away from the Union and toward reemphasizing national government in European thinking. The momentum that existed five years ago to resolve these issues has ebbed, and there's not the same level of desire now to cede power to Brussels. Indeed, the biggest recent success of the E.U. — its agreement to establish a rapid reaction military force — was accomplished outside of the E.U.'s own structures, by direct negotiations between member states. There are still competing visions of Europe: Some envisage a kind of European super-state, while others emphasize more of a federation. And one of the problems they all share is that for the most part, their people are quite indifferent. They don't understand the issues enough to care about them, and these complex closed-door negotiations don't help matters much.

In the past, European leaders have shown a phenomenal ability to fudge. Many previous summits have ended in abject failure, but have been spun as progress. This time that will be hard to do, because the outstanding issues really need to be straightened out. We'll know by Monday whether or not they've succeeded — and this time it will be extremely difficult to put a gloss on failure.