The European Orchestra

Will Europe never be Europe because it is becoming Europe?

To most speakers of the English language this sentence must look like nonsense or, at best, a deliberately absurd illustration in a textbook of linguistic philosophy. Yet to initi ates of the inner temple of what is called “The European Debate” it is both comprehensible and vitally important. You just need to insert four different senses of the word “Europe.” The question then reads: Will the current European Union of fifteen states (Europe, sense 1) never attain the long-dreamed-of final condition of coherent political unity (Europe, sense 2) because it is now committed to including most other states on the geographical continent of Europe (sense 3)? However, one school among the theologians of the inner temple proposes an alternative exegesis, in which the last part reads, more pessimistically, “because it is reverting to the bad old ways of competing nation-states in pre-1945 Europe” (sense 4).*

Somewhere around 3 AM on the morning of Monday, December 11, 2000, inside the vast concrete slab of the Acropolis conference center in Nice, where exhausted leaders of the European Union were trying to conclude their nego tiations on the outcome of the EU’s latest “intergovernmental conference,” the Belgian prime minister was holding out for more votes for Romania. Why? Well, if in a future, expanded EU Belgium’s old rival the Netherlands was going to have more “weighted v otes” in the EU’s Council of Ministers than Belgium, because it has a larger population, then Romania (which has 23 million people to the Netherlands’ 16 million) should certainly have more votes than the Netherlands.

To longstanding observers of t he EU, it was no surprise that the supposedly grown-up leaders of fifteen of the world’s most prosperous democracies were behaving like a bunch of schoolkids squabbling over the board game Diplomacy. This was Europe (sense 1), after all.1 What was surprising was that they were squabbling over votes for Romania. And Lithuania. And Cyprus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovenia.

Weeks later, when clever diplomats had finally managed to agree what their prime ministers and foreign ministers ought to have agreed in the early hours of Monday, December 11, we could download from the European Union Web site a legal text that will be known as the Nice Treaty.2 Among other things, this spells out exactly how many “weighted votes” in the Council of Ministers, how many commissioners in the European Commission, how many members of the European Parliament, and how many judges in the European Court of Justice each state is entitled to have in a future European Union of twenty-seven member states.

Chaotic, undignified, and badly chaired by the French president, Jacques Chirac, the Nice summit was nonetheless a symbolic and psychological breakthrough to bringing the formerly communist countries of the “other Europe” into the European Union. Eleven years after the velvet revolutions of 1989, the EU seemed at last to have understood what 1989 meant. The word “moving” is not one that…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.