Decline of The West
by George Szamuely

December 8, 2000

Europe Challenges US Hegemony

Defense Secretary William Cohen was blustering away the other day. For a little while it seemed as if Washington had more or less resigned itself to the so-called European rapid reaction force. Since there was nothing much the Administration could do to stop it, why not grin and pretend it was in favor of the idea all along? But the strain of false bonhomie was evidently too much for the lugubrious Cohen. A few days ago he let fly. NATO, he warned, could become a "relic of the past." A chilling vision indeed! Note the subjunctive. NATO already is a "relic of the past." It was that more than ten years ago. What is the point of a military alliance without a common threat?

An EU army, on the other hand, makes sense. Small though it may be, it symbolizes the emergence of a European superstate. Naturally Cohen hates the idea. Without NATO life has no meaning: "If ... they [the Europeans] try to or are desirous of a separate operational planning capability, separate and distinct from NATO itself, then that is going to weaken the ties between the United States and NATO, and NATO and the EU." These "ties" serve to ensure permanent European subordination to the United States. The Europeans well know this, which is why they want to wind NATO down. But they have to do this surreptitiously, of course. For the time being the EU badly needs NATOís resources. NATO owns all the military bases, as well as all the intelligence-gathering facilities. Exploiting NATO resources is not the same thing as subordinating oneself to NATO. Like most of todayís Washington policymakers or policy wonks, Cohen sounds as if he is a relic of a bygone era, forever nostalgic for the good old days. "Every European member of NATO has only one set of forces and one defense budget, not one force and one budget for NATO and another force and military budget for the EU," he harrumphed, "Therefore I proposed as part of the proposed NATO-EU link a common defense planning process involving all 23 NATO and EU countries as the only logical and cost effective way to insure the best possible coordination of limited forces and resources." The proposal, needless to say, fell on deaf ears.

Britainís Tory Euroskeptics, on the other hand, greeted Cohenís strictures warmly. Their leader, as always, is Margaret Thatcher. While the Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black-owned media bestow lavish attention on them, they enjoy virtually no support in the country. Unpopular though Tony Blair may be, no one doubts that he will win the General Election – probably next year – very comfortably. On the tenth anniversary of her downfall last month, Thatcher launched into a ferocious attack on the proposed EU army. She called it a "monumental folly that puts our security at risk in order to satisfy political vanity." Somewhat inconsistently she then went on to ridicule the whole idea: "Europe has even less chance of becoming a military power than of creating a sound currency," she spluttered. Quite how an idea that has no hope of ever getting off the ground can also a mortal threat to the security of Britain, neither she – nor any other Euroskeptic – ever bothers to explain.

The European Union military will undoubtedly get off the ground. The EU will eventually challenge the United States for global primacy. But what kind of EU it will be remains an open question. Will the EU constitute an alternative model to US-style capitalism? Or, in the desperate attempt to take on the United States, will the EU emerge as yet another political entity dominated by the giant transnational corporations? For example, business interests are forever whining about Europeís excessively high wages, tight regulations, powerful trade unions, high taxes, lavish welfare payments, and long vacations. We have become "uncompetitive," they cry. Europe must become more entrepreneurial, more like the United States. Following every election, governments in France and Germany invariably promise to cut back on the welfare state. The people respond by going on strike, and the governments are forced to back down. Faced by almost certain election defeat, governments abandon their "reformist" ideas.

Today, Europeís businessmen are pushing hard for European expansion to the East. Admitting the former Soviet bloc countries into the EU will give Europeís corporations access to cheap labor, which could then be used to cut incomes in the West. To attract investment, individual countries would have to be able to set their own labor and environmental standards, as well as their own tax policies. Ordinary Europeans, however, have not the slightest intention of permitting their wage levels to drop. This is why European governments are under pressure to insist on uniform labor and environmental standards across Europe. Businesses in Europe, unlike the United States, are restricted as to what they can do. They are unable to move their factories to the Third World to take advantage of cheap labor there and then expect to reimport their products back into Europe. Any transnational corporation that wants to invest in Europe thus has to follow the strict guidelines of Brussels.

Businesses favor a looser EU. Politicians responding to popular pressure push for a tighter EU. The thirteen East European countries seeking EU membership will have to adopt current EU practices on currency, taxation, subsidies, and land ownership. Moreover, EU institutions are being reformed so as to make sure that they cannot veto policies set by the EU leaders. The larger European states are to be given more weight while the veto rights of individual members are to be restricted. Gone will be the principle of unanimity, according to which every EU country has to agree on a policy before it could be adopted. At present 20 percent of the decisions of the European Council of Ministers – on such issues as taxation and defense – require unanimity. The remaining 80 percent require only a so-called "qualified majority" – 62 of the 87 votes in the Council of Ministers. A vote of 26 is considered a "blocking vote," sufficient to kill a measure. Germany, Britain, France and Italy each have ten votes on the Council of Ministers. Yet Germany has a population of nearly 83 million, while the other three are at around 60 million. The Netherlands, on the other hand, with 15 million, and Portugal with 10 million, each have five votes.

One aim of the current Nice summit is to extend the number of issues which can be settled by majority voting. This is a little tricky. For every country invariably has one issue on which it feels very strongly. For Spain it is regional aid. For Britain it is taxation. For Germany it is immigration and asylum. For France it is international trade and services. Another aim is to see that the number of votes on the Council of Ministers reflects the relative population levels of individual countries. If current practices continue, following the accession of 12 new member-states, Germany, Britain, France and Italy would have only 40 out of some 134 votes on the Council of Ministers. Italy has proposed giving Germany 33 votes, and 30 each to the other three large countries. Luxembourg would have three votes. The French, not surprisingly, are not happy. It violates the principle of Franco-German parity that had been the driving principle of European unity. The Germans are also proposing something called a "double majority." According to this, a measure would pass if supported both by a majority of the member states and by a majority of the EUís population. France rejects this as well, since again this would serve to increase German dominance.

Reform of the European Commission is also being proposed. Currently, there are 20 seats on the European Commission. Ten countries get one seat each and five countries – Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain – get two. No one wants a European Commission of 30 Commissioners. So the big states say they will give up their second Commissioner, so long as the small states give up their single Commissioner.

Europeís problem is that it cannot challenge the United States unless it becomes a coherent political entity. This means that it cannot allow itself to get bogged down in interminable internecine disputes among tiny states. The reform proposals currently on the table all involve limiting the sovereignty of small European states. Yet there is probably no other way. We saw during the bombing of Yugoslavia last year ho awful it was that there existed no power on earth that could do anything to thwart the will of the United States. A strong Europe is desirable precisely in order to achieve a balance of power. But there is more. Europe may yet come to be a model of a desirable way of life. In Europe shareholder value is not the answer to every question. People are not sacrificed for the sake of higher profit margins. Americans may find the European way of life not to their taste. But we are living in the twilight of the post-Cold war era where too many people are finding that the American way of life is not to their taste.

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