Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1727

Making sense of Nice splits

This article is over 21 years, 5 months old
Issue 1727


Making sense of Nice splits

By Alex Callinicos

IT’S HARD to get worked up about all the manoeuvring at the European Union (EU) summit in Nice. One of the absurdities of the media coverage was the way reporters would switch from briefly acknowledging the huge trade union demonstration or anti-capitalist protest outside the conference to yet more ultra-detailed analysis of the different countries’ positions on qualified majority voting.

The chattering classes complain about Europe’s “democratic deficit”. But their obsession with this kind of minute detail helps to ensure that most of us switch off whenever the EU is mentioned. All the same, there were important issues at stake in Nice. The EU is a highly successful capitalist cartel representing the biggest single zone of the world economy.

Now it is spreading eastwards, with plans to incorporate at least the more advanced former Stalinist states of Central and Eastern Europe. This strategy is strongly supported by the US, which regards EU enlargement as a means of keeping Russia isolated.

But enlargement requires changes in the EU’s increasingly cumbersome procedures. For its first 30 years the European Community ran largely on the basis of unanimous decisions. The bigger the EU gets, the less feasible this is. Hence the progressive shift towards qualified majority voting.

The “qualified” indicates that decisions aren’t taken on a straightforward majority basis but reflect the balance of power among the different European states. Successive draft treaties presented by the French government, which presided over the summit, sought to give the big four states-Germany, France, Britain and Italy-a large enough share of the vote to block any decision they didn’t like.

The smaller EU states bitterly resisted this. This is one reason why the summit proved to be so painful and protracted. Another is the divisions among the major states themselves. Here Tony Blair’s efforts to preserve the British veto on certain issues were a side-show.

The key conflicts have been between France and Germany. From the start, these two states have dominated the European Community. During the Cold War the German ruling class was content to let Franch take the political lead, despite being much stronger economically. Since Germany was reunified ten years ago its rulers have become much more aggressive.

Germany went to the Nice summit demanding a share of the vote that reflected the fact that it has the largest population in Europe. The leaders of Germany’s powerful states, led by Edmund Stoiber, the ultra right wing premier of Bavaria, also want another treaty that will guarantee their rights in the EU.

But France has been equally aggressive. While the German economy stagnated throughout the 1990s, France’s has been growing much more quickly over the past couple of years. The French ruling class also has a long term aim of building up the EU’s ability to act independently of the US.

It regards Europe’s dependence on US military might to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo as a humiliation. So France supports a European rapid reaction force that can act independently of the US-led NATO. As the Financial Times put it, “The French emphasis is on the EU having an autonomous ability to manage crises, of which military capability is seen as an essential element.”

This stress worries the Americans. Just before Nice, US defence secretary William Cohen warned that NATO might become a “relic” unless the European force was firmly integrated into the alliance.

The summit managed to paper over the cracks on defence. But no one doubts that it will produce further rows, notably between France and Britain, which consistently acts as Washington’s poodle on security questions. More generally, it looks as if France pushed too hard at Nice to get a treaty that reflected its interests and priorities. There were numerous complaints about French “arrogance”.

The deeper problem lies in the very nature of the EU. Far from representing the interests and the wishes of Europe’s peoples, it is a club of capitalist states governed by two forces. Those are the drive to more effectively exploit workers and consumers, both within the EU and globally, and the conflicts over the loot among the European ruling classes.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance