Kick The Can, Please!

Eurocrats are pointing fingers at Spain and Poland for sinking the Brussels summit. They might just as well have directed them at Germany. Superficially, the acrimony involved voting rights and whether to stick to the deal reached at Nice three years ago. In fact, the flap was more about money and public opinion.

First the money. The debate over voting rights does not take place in a vacuum. With the extra votes guaranteed by Nice, Spain and Poland could block more EU legislation, then demand greater payments under the EU's structural and regional programs in exchange for lifting their vetoes. Perhaps there is some social justice in this. But Germany, traditionally the "paymaster" of Europe, naturally opposes such shenanigans--and no longer suffers any cold-war shyness about saying so.

The new voting system would come into being only in 2009, though. So why all the heat now? The answer is public opinion--and the manipulative myopia it inspires in politicians. European leaders agree on 95 percent of the new constitution; they have bolstered their bargaining clout on the remaining 5 percent by issuing inflammatory and uncompromising public statements. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski calls German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder "closed" minded, though he himself is locked in his bargaining position by a 395-14 vote in the Polish Parliament. Germany enlisted France to join in a walkout if Poland and Spain did not back down. With public and parliamentary opinion so aroused, a compromise was impossible.

Commentators and statesmen alike called it a crisis that could split the EU. It won't. Instead, this is a good time for everyone involved to take a deep breath, slow down--and recall a bit of history. Europe is in difficult straits today precisely because since 1991 it has struck a series of last-minute idealistic deals--most of them Germany's doing. Here's a short list:

Double Unification. A decade ago Helmut Kohl precipitously pushed two forms of unification--a single Germany and a single currency, the euro. The two were economically contradictory, and now budgetary rules designed by Germany to constrain profligate Italians (the so-called Stability Pact) are being violated by the country that created them. The result: Germany now lacks the legitimacy--and the cash--to play its traditional leadership role in Europe.

Being Nice at Nice. At 4 a.m. on Dec. 11, 2000, overtired and overtasked national leaders broke days of deadlock when Germany compromised by accepting a skewed voting system for the EU. Jacques Chirac secured for France the same number of votes as Germany, even though the French population is 25 percent smaller; Poland and Spain received nearly the same, though the Polish population is less than half Germany's. Hence the current standoff.

The Constitutional Gamble. The grandly named Convention on the Future of Europe was conceived at the royal palace in Laeken two years ago to "democratize" the EU--with a nudge from German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who hopes to become Europe's first foreign minister. The wager was that by debating a new constitution, public support for the Union would grow. It hasn't. Constant Eurotinkering has made voters cranky and suspicious. For the first time in the Union's half-century history, polls show that fewer than half now view it favorably.

The lesson for Brussels here is clear: Don't rush! Think long term! Remember that early-morning deals come back to bite those who make them--and undermine the European ideal. Remember, too, that Europe's proposed constitution is a conservative document meant to consolidate and modestly extend EU achievement since 1990--and fix them for decades in a new Europe of nearly 500 million people.

The "collapse" and "crisis" in Brussels thus has a silver lining. So what if Europe's grandees went home empty-handed? Another early-morning compromise in Brussels last week might well have triggered yet another vicious circle of rambunctious referendums, continuous crises, contentious negotiations and deeper public disillusionment. Gisela Stuart, the German-born British M.P. who participated in the EU convention and is somewhat disappointed with the result, sums up the matter succinctly: "It is in our own interest and in the interest of our children to get this right!" A little patience is in order. Europe kicked the can down the road? Good. That's the smart play.