Euro Deal Leaves an Unwieldy Union

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Once they get a little sleep, Europe's leaders may realize that the agreement that capped their marathon summit in Nice may actually make the European Union even more unwieldy than it already is. Negotiators from E.U. member states agreed on a series of compromises early Monday in an 18-hour negotiating session following four days of talks. Member states clashed bitterly over how power will be apportioned in the Union, now that it plans to increase its membership from 15 to 28 states.

The fault lines ran every which way as larger states squared off against the smaller ones over the number of votes each member should have, but historic rivalries among the British, French and Germans also limited the extent to which they were willing to present a united front. Germany was forced to back away from demands that its share of votes in the councils of Europe be expanded to reflect the fact that its population exceeds that of Britain, France and Italy by 20 million — Berlin currently shares equally the highest number of E.U. votes with those three countries.

Smaller nations thrilled

Opposition by the smaller states as well as Britain also managed to maintain the principle of veto power for any member state in many key areas of policy. Until now, E.U. decisions have had to be reached by consensus among the 15 members, creating an automatic veto power for any dissenter. That principle has been abolished in some 39 areas of decision-making, but it persists in many key areas such as taxation and social policy. And, of course, even in areas where it has been replaced by majority vote, the summit agreed on the principle of a "qualified majority" that requires 71 percent of the vote to pass any measure.

In the end, the outcome may be best parsed by the reactions of the various players. The smaller eastern European states that have been waiting on the doorstep are thrilled — their European "citizenship" will be granted on an equal footing with current members (Poland, for example, managed to win agreement that it would have the same number of votes as Spain, based on the equivalence in population size), and the summit also indicated that the door will be open to some of them as early as 2003. Among the current member states, some of the smaller nations were happy at holding back the designs on greater power of some of the larger ones, while others were concerned about expanding the Union while its decision-making remains so unwieldy. Britain was happy to retain the veto principle of policy areas it holds dear, while Germany managed to advance its agenda for reducing the scope of veto, and also managed to win agreement on the need for further talks to define the limits of E.U. authority over member states — a concern that Berlin shares, in different ways, with Britain and France. The most telling response, perhaps, came from the European Union commissioner, Italy's Romano Prodi. "I cannot hide from you a certain regret that we did not manage to go further," Prodi told reporters at the summit's conclusion. And that's hardly surprising, coming from a man whose job it is to actually run the behemoth.