European Union that is commended as a model for close economic and political cooperation between SAARC countries is in turmoil because of the clashes over ?economic nationalism? and sharp disagreements over forging a common energy policy. These issues dominated the run up to the March 23-24 EU summit meeting held at Brussels. The summit was hyped as a major event to rejuvenate Europe'sstagnating economies and resolving disputes over protectionist polices of member countries. Besides a common energy policy, the summit'sagenda was to create jobs to lift the bloc out of the current malaise that was caused by rejection of the proposed EU Constitution by voters in France and Netherlands. Instead, the summit was overtaken by feuds over spate of national governments? attempts to protect their companies from foreign takeovers. These developments have caused grave concerns among EU leaders who apprehend that protectionism may roll back half a century of economic integration.
Open feuds, particularly between Italy and France, during the run up to the summit vitiated the atmosphere and dashed all hopes of achieving greater integration of European economy. In a bid to avoid confrontation, Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel of Austria, who holds the EU'srotating presidency, urged member states to put weeks of protectionists squabbles behind them. Schussel went on to caution thus: ?Without change, we just fall back?. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany made an equally strong plea against protectionism. She called for overcoming ?economic nationalism? or risk jeopardising the Union'ssingle market. ?The internal market can'twork unless electricity flows freely and we agree on European champions and not think strictly in national terms?; she observed alluding to state interventions in a series of recent corporate deals.
The most trenchant criticism of protectionism came from Italy. Fuming over French Government'sefforts to engineer a French energy mega-merger and thwart the Italian energy company Enel'sbid for a French concern Suez, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy railed against France. One of Berlusconi'scoalition partners, Pier Ferdinando Casini, declared that any country that restricted cross border takeovers was not a real European. ?Either you are a pretend (sic) European and therefore in favour of protectionism and nationalism or you are a real European and want to stimulate competition?, he said in a barely veiled attack on France. Reacting sharply to these attacks, a senior French official retorted that Berlusconi was engaging in theatrics and observed that his country had three times the foreign investment of Italy, while foreign shareholders in Italian companies had limited voting rights. Not the one to give up, the Italian Prime Minister lobbied EU members to sign a letter denouncing economic nationalism. Many states resisted the move. Britain, Sweden and Netherlands – EU'smost ardent economic modernisers – refused to sign the document on the grounds that it would further divide Europe at a difficult time. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium too declined to sign saying those who want to send letters have to beware of protectionism indulged in by them. European media reports suggest that not many were willing to back Berlusconi who is believed to be grandstanding for domestic political ends – an obvious reference of Berlusconi'sattempt to regain the ground he has lost in his own country as reflected in recent polls. It is not for the first time that the Italian Prime Minister has attracted flack. During Italy'ssix-month EU presidency in 2004 he provoked all round condemnation for his remarks against a German European Member of Parliament (MEP) saying the MEP appeared to be a Nazi Camp guard.
A common approach to the security of energy supplies is a major issue before the EU. It gained urgency after Russia temporarily cut supply of natural gas to Ukraine earlier this year. The summit was expected to hammer out a common approach on the issue but failed to achieve much on this front. EU remains sharply divided on the issue. France and others of its ilk are wary of giving EU more powers over this key sector, while others like Poland are resisting opening their markets to the competition. The common refrain of EU observers is that the summit proved a damp squib. In fact, the EU is gripped by an identity crisis. The rejection of the EU Constitution has forced the national governments in France and elsewhere on the back foot. They are now invoking nationalist sentiments at the cost of the bloc. European voters appear to be growing wary of liberalising union that has become synonymous with the forces of globalisation that are the cause of angst for joblessness and immigration. The admission of East European countries into the Union – that is projected by many as a great achievement since the end of the cold war – have created new challenges for EU and made its institutions more cumbersome, remote and hard to understand. Experts believe that the possibility of the Union going backward, through increase in protectionism, is real. Optimists among EU leaders are, however, confident that all problems, complex though they are, will be overcome in coming months and years. They talk about the 50-year journey towards Europeanism that has made considerable progress in a continent that witnessed long and bloody wars among nation states.
(The writer was recently in Brussels and Paris)
French President won'tlisten, if it is English
French President Jacques Chirac stormed out of a meeting during the recent EU summit at Brussels attended among others by Euopean Central Bank President, Jean-Claude Trichet and Earnet-Antoine Selliere, head of the European business lobby, Unice, after being told that the working language would be English. Insiders say Chirac interrupted fellow countryman, Seilliere, and asked him to speak in his mother tongue but the latter tried to explain to the President that English was the international language of business. President wasn'timpressed and walked out of the meeting with his two Ministers. Although the European media, by and large, criticised the President for his ?chauvinism?, Frenchmen hailed him.