25 October 2001 Edition

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Two-tier EU a reality

BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN


Just a day after Bertie Ahern proclaimed last Thursday at the launch of the National Forum on Europe that the relationship of the 26-Counties with the EU was reaching a critical moment, the reality of Ireland's secondary role was made fully apparent at the EU summit in Ghent.

Secret meetings between Britain, France and Germany overshadowed the summit as well as new proposals for a European Government, with majority voting at its heart, which were circulated at the conference.

Romano Prodi might have thought that his refusal to attend press conferences organised by the Belgian government who are currently holding the EU presidency was the real meat of the summit but it wasn't.

Not one but two meetings between Britain, France and Germany were held in the days prior to the EU summit. Defence ministers from the three met as well as a secret meeting between Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder. Some of the other 12 leaders of EU states were annoyed by what they saw as a "mini summit". Portugal's Antonio Guterres complained about the secret meetings saying, "Europe should be discussed as a group of 15. I don't want to make groups within the EU".

However, British Prime minister Tony Blair refused to give details the meeting of the three leaders, showing clear disdain for the actual structures of the EU. The EU leaders did agree a common statement on the war in Afghanistan but only after substantially changing the original draft that included references to the overthrow of the Taliban as being one of the aims of the US-led campaign.

However, secret meetings, and groupings of the larger EU states were not the only example of the emerging two-tier Europe from the Ghent summit. Proposals for a new EU government, with permanent ministers from member-state governments based in Brussels as part of an EU cabinet, were floated among EU member states by Michel Barnier, the French commissioner for Institutional Reform.

Right now, the EU council of ministers is represented by civil servants on a week to week basis, with the actual political representatives only making occasional appearances.

While this may seem like a positive step in that it could mean taking power out of the hands of unelected bureaucrats back into those of elected politicians, there is one serious drawback and that is how decisions are to be taken in this "Euro cabinet". It actually involves substantial use of majority voting and is yet another move away from the recognition of the right to veto, one of the core pillars of the original EU Treaty.

Barnier's proposals are to be discussed at the next EU summit on political reform of the EU in December. It is interesting that it was at the same EU summit that the EU leaders agreed to issue an unprecedented statement outlining the EU's weaknesses and recognising the fears that many EU citizens share about its influence. So there you have the reality of the EU today - secret meetings and new proposals for an EU government, while lip service is paid to the concerns of its actual citizens. The two-tier EU is not a possibility on the horizon, it is a reality.

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