The European Union Only Just Avoided Collapse

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Europe is important to me.

I was born in Post War Germany. I concluded that I did not want to live there when I was 18. I needed a bigger world to call Home. I settled in the UK and greatly enjoyed the creative spirit of Swinging London of the Late Sixties, what with the incredible Arts Lab and the unique ICA. But Britain was not a member of the European Economic Community at that time, and I was not a Commonwealth citizen. Thus, our love affair was short lived and ended after only one year.

But I moved back to London in 1976. By then the UK had fully signed up to the European Community. Of course, ahead were the years of the Iron Lady and the controversial ‘Belgrano’ affair. By 1987 it was time for me to move on again, this time with my wife and two kids and this time to the South and to warmer climates. So, since 1987 we have been living in Spain, Mallorca actually.

As you can see, Europe is actually important to me. I consider myself a European native. I am now a European Union citizen with voting rights in Spain at the local town hall level, and of course at the time of the European Union elections. I am a documented permanent resident in Spain, just as I was a legally documented resident during my UK years. I still have my Germany passport and nationality, but I have not lived there since 1976, never voted for any German elections since then nor do I have any plans for the future to ever move back to the country of my origins. It is simply too cold there, weather wise and other.

It is important for me that Europe works, politically, socially, economically and culturally. The EU is the largest economic and political entity in the world, with a total population of 494 million and a combined nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of €11.6 trillion (US$14.5 trillion) in 2006. Ok., China is coming up fast as a close second.

The European Union has gone through a bad patch during the last two years. A European constitution (the Treaty of Nice) was proposed and already ratified by some 18 EU member states. But France and Holland voted ‘no’ and ever since, negotiations on a new treaty have been slow and difficult.

At this week’s crucial European Union summit in Brussels it was going to be tough. The EU leaders gathered in Brussels to hammer out a deal to replace the now defunct European constitution that never was. But while some may have been hoping against hope that the posturing at home would give way to compromise in Brussels, it seemed that instead most leaders were digging their heels in and were even finding new issues to argue about.

But Europe can breathe a sigh of relief after a marathon night of negotiations ended in a deal. After German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the stakes by threatening to go ahead without Poland, Warsaw was finally pacified with a number of concessions and eventually all 27 countries agreed to move forward with a new draft treaty to replace the defunct constitution. At a heated summit in Brussels, EU leaders eventually settled their differences over the rules under which the club operates. The main stumbling block was Poland’s attempt to boost its voting power in the Council of Ministers, the EU’s main decision-making body.

In a dramatic move, Germany, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency until the end of June, threatened to press ahead without Poland. The tactic worked as the Poles accepted a compromise under which their voting strength will be reduced in 2017 after a three-year transitional period (that’s ten years from now, but never mind. Europe has to think long term). The news came at 4h24 this morning: The EU leaders had reached a hard-fought deal on a new treaty that will streamline the way the bloc does business. After two years of stagnation and introspection, the EU can finally re-launch its program of closer political integration. The 27 member states had agreed to the compromise treaty, presented by the current EU president, Angela Merkel.

EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the deal was vital: “I think now we have made a great step forward.” He praised Merkel for a success that many had thought impossible, and presenting her with a bunch of flowers, thanked her for all she had done for Europe. Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski, who had threatened to torpedo the summit, said he was pleased with the final deal: “We did not have to swallow any bitter bills.” And British Prime Minister Tony Blair said “I don’t think there is anything that can derail the process now.” Well, I am not sure that he has much of a say in Europe any more after today.

The reforms to the EU will be far-reaching, it is thought. The treaty will create a full-time president who will lead the Council of Ministers, replacing the current system where members take six-month terms. There will be a new high representative for foreign affairs and the European Commission will be reduced. The reforms are considered essential to streamline the running of the bloc, which has increased greatly in size in recent years.

What must have been a sleepless night for a large number of European politicians and some others, seems to have turned around just in time. A collapse of the idea of a united Europe was on the cards, but it has been avoided, if only just.

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