Enlarging Europe: Hot air billows in the Tower of Babel

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The Independent Online
European meetings are already slowed to a snail's pace by bureaucratic and linguistic obstacles. Katherine Butler forsees even greater problems ahead for the Brussels machine.

It's Monday, so it must be Brussels. High above the grim streets, in the pink granite fortress which houses the Council of Ministers, the centre of political control in the European Union, Austria's minister clears his throat for the start of a typical tour de table.

Two hours later, it is Luxembourg's turn but by now it is difficult to know who is speaking, because of noise in the room, comings and goings of hundreds of officials and the drone of interpreters.

By the time the 15th minister has read out a statement conveying his government's assurances that it is considering the latest proposals on cherry imports from Slovenia, his counterparts are asleep, or engrossed in their newspapers.

Others have fled for the quiet of the coffee bar, while a few more are in the press area, making sure some minor negotiating triumph or a handshake with a visiting dignitary gets a good showing on the main evening news at home.

EU ministerial meetings have become so big and unwieldy that it is feared this system of decision-making is almost dysfunctional. And if things are bad in a union of 15, they will be unworkable when the council table also has to accommodate Polish, Hungarian, Slovenian, Czech, Estonian or Cypriot ministers.

Those who fear expanding means weakening the union predict paralysis and stagnation if, for example, a measure backed by a majority could be vetoed by a few votes representing a tiny percentage of the EU's total population.

But the practicalities of enlargement are just as worrying: how will 20 or 21 ministers and their entourages fit around the table and, more importantly, will there be any room for effective negotiation?

Officials have already had a foretaste of the nightmarish depths all this could descend to post-enlargement in so-called "structured dialogues" with ministers from the candidate countries. "There was a real cultural difference. The Bulgarians or Romanians wanted to tell us about their entire national plan every time they got the floor. You could see heads nodding," one ambassador admitted.