A bar code for Europe, bitte !

, by George Kipouros

A bar code for Europe, bitte !

For the second time since its accession in 1995, Austria holds the EU’s rotating Presidency during the first six months of 2006. It has been tasked with reviving the debate on EU’s future and the moribund European constitution, while focusing also on further enlargement and external relations.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said Europe needed “some moments of fantasy and flexibility and new thoughts” and these moments seem to have inspired the Presidency logo - a reassembly of the colours of the flags of all Member States in a “bar code”. The bar code unites the EU Member States in a single symbol, representing Europe’s diversity and its unique identity in visual form.

Nonetheless, the present and future identities of the EU still remain in urgent need of definition.

Mr Schuessel stated that there should be a “dialogue with the people” in all European nations “about the border of Europe, about the institutions, about where we are going and not just about where we are coming from.” Moving in this direction was the conference “The Sound of Europe” in Salzburg (January 2006) where 300 “elite” participants discussed questions as to the future of Europe, European identity, values and culture. The conference provided some interesting speeches but was barely noticed from European media, let alone the European public that is still rather disinterested in the debate for Europe.

The result of taking the citizen’s opinion for granted was, after all, one of the main obstacles that compromised the success of the EU constitution. Notwithstanding, the Austrian Chancellor remains convinced that the debate is moving forward. His aim is to have a timetable and road map for the ratification of a revamped European constitution ready by the hand-over to Finland in mid-2006. For this ‘new’ Constitution he promotes for a top down approach - with a broad spectrum of citizens contributing to its reinvention - while hoping that the new document could possibly be ratified in tandem with European parliamentary elections in 2009. The EU summit of June is expected to give answers as to whether to “defreeze” the constitution or not and to propose the idea of a new document.

...the present and future identities of the EU still remain in urgent need of definition

In addition to the focus on the future of Europe and its identity, the Presidency is bringing together the EU institutions and experts to discuss subsidiarity and the proportionality principle as well as better regulation in the framework of the European Union. The conference “Europe begins at home” in April will tackle these issues while Mr. Schüssel underlines that “even as Europeans integrate their economies, it remains critical to respect national sovereignty”.

Although recent Eurobarometer figures indicate that the Austrians are the strongest dissenters of the idea of the Union’s further enlargement, the Presidency continues to advocate further expansion. It strives to offer a “clear European perspective” to the countries of South-Eastern Europe in line with the Union’s so-called “Thessaloniki Agenda”. The Austrian Chancellor said that he will support plans for the accession of Romania and Bulgaria by 2007, or latest 2008, while membership for Croatia and FYR Macedonia should follow soon after. As for Turkey’s EU membership bid, Vienna was the most vociferous opponent of opening EU entry talks with Ankara, pushing for an alternative to full membership in the form of a privileged partnership status. Even now, as the negation process moves forward, the Presidency’s spokespeople continue to declare that “the end must be open for Turkey”.

The Austrian Chancellor praised the Presidency’s timing as ‘highly suitable’ because it coincided with the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud and the 250th anniversary of the birth of W. A. Mozart, both born in Austria. Hopefully, the Austrians will celebrate the European Idea and bring in fruitful results, with the same enthusiasm as that shown for these two anniversaries.

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