European Affairs

The Great Debate Begins on Europe's Future     Print Email
Philippe Lemaître

Brussels Correspondent, European Affairs

Now that the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, have offered their contributions, it should be possible to start the real debate on the future organization of Europe. It is not a question of dismissing the positions of the other member states, notably that of Britain, nor those of the Commission or the European Parliament.

Rather, the pronouncements of the French and German leaders have identified the two poles of the debate, between which it should now be possible to seek a sensible middle path, suitable for a European Union with 25 members or more.


One body of opinion in the EU, along with Mr. Schroeder, favors a political leap forward in the direction of a federal

Europe. Another school of thought would prefer an improved version of the status quo, as does the

French Prime Minister. The gap between Mr. Jospin and French President Jacques Chirac turns out in the end not to be very significant.

The 15 member states, as well as the countries seeking EU membership, which will be included in the discussion in one way or another, will have three years to design the shape of tomorrow's Europe. The next Intergovernmental Conference, which has been given the task of deciding on that shape, will not take place until 2004, as agreed at the EU summit meeting in Nice last December.

At the end of this year, the EU's leaders will meet at Leuven (Louvain) in Belgium, in a summit marking the end of Belgium's six-month EU presidency, to define a methodology for this difficult debate. The debate will be constructive only if the French and the Germans make an effort to overcome their differences. That is the way the EU works. Today, however, it is no longer obvious that France and Germany are determined to make that effort.

Clashes between the two countries at the Nice summit left an impression of malaise in the Franco-German relationship. Since then, the two governments have intensified their contacts in the hope of resolving the problems between them.

In a show of good will at the Stockholm summit in March, the Germans supported the French on sensitive issues on which Paris was in danger of being isolated, such as the timetable for opening up the EU electricity market. The Germans also refrained from embarrassing Paris by calling for a rapid and thorough-going reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

But this friendly German disposition may not last, if one is to judge by the discussion document on Europe's future sent by Mr. Schroeder to his colleagues in the Social Democratic Party. The document needles France on numerous issues and makes clear that the priority should be to take strict account of German interests. The French, who were not warned in advance of the German initiative, much less consulted, gave it a cool welcome. So much so that Mr. Jospin's speech on the future of the EU omitted the customary reference to the vital importance of good Franco-German relations.

In short, it seems that once again fences will need mending, and more work will have to done to ensure that Mr. Schroeder, Mr. Jospin and Mr. Chirac find a common language. There is no natural mutual sympathy among the three men. Tony Blair, who has just been easily re-elected as British Prime Minister and wants to strengthen his country's role in Europe, could find it advantageous to contribute to the debate. So could the Commission under the leadership of President Romano Prodi, if it can summon up an imaginative capacity it has so far lacked. The coming months will be crucial.

If progress is to be achieved, an effort must be made to prioritize problems and to remove possible sources of tension and misunderstanding, while making the most of points of agreement, without waiting for 2004. Mr. Schroeder and Mr. Jospin differ both over the areas for further integration - le contenu, or content, to use the latest French term - and over the EU's future political architecture - the framework in which the content is contained (le contenant). The disagreements about content should be dealt with first.

With regard to the EU's common policies, the French and others have reacted very badly to renewed pressure by the Germans for CAP reform - and especially to the proposal that the cost of the policy should no longer be borne exclusively by the EU budget and that national budgets should share the burden. Mr. Schroeder is demanding a similar "re-nationalization" of the regional policy, an idea that is being loudly protested by the Spanish, the Greeks, the Italians and the Portuguese, as well as by the candidate countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Mr. Jospin has a point when he says that it is paradoxical to propose a federal Europe and at the same time argue that the main common policies be dismantled. On the eve of the EU's enlargement, which is bound to be expensive, Mr. Schroeder is returning to the charge in the hope of achieving some of the objectives he failed to attain when the EU's Agenda 2000 was adopted in Berlin in 1999. He is seeking to change the rules of the game so as to reduce Germany's net contribution to the EU budget.

There is a real risk of a Franco-German confrontation on this issue, which could lead to a split in the EU. It should, however, be possible to avert such an outcome. Although the French are certainly not inclined to see the CAP destroyed, they are ready for it to be reformed. It is conceivable that one day the French might abandon the rigid position they have adopted so far and accept that some farm spending should in future be "co-financed" by member states. That would go at least some way toward satisfying Germany's long-standing demands.

The Germans, for their part, cannot continue to argue in favor of "more Europe," while at the same time trying to break the rules that ensure solidarity among the member states. This is an old and difficult debate that was undoubtedly not tackled as well as it should have been in Berlin in 1999. It is not unreasonable to reopen the debate, provided it is done without acrimony. On closer examination, the differences among the 15 member states, and particularly between France and Germany, do not seem so great as to rule out a compromise.

Mr. Schroeder is now focusing more on developing the EU's common foreign and security policy, while Mr. Jospin is concentrating more on coordinating economic policies and defending the European social model. Mr. Schroeder is attentive to the sensitivities of Germany's Laender (states), Mr. Jospin is taking care not to upset the center-left coalition government in France. But even if there are significant differences of emphasis on these issues, there does not seem to be a risk of a head-on collision, at least at this stage.

Mr. Jospin would like to see the establishment of an "economic government" for the Euro Zone, or perhaps simply a strengthening of the Eurogroup, which comprises the 12 euro-zone finance ministers and representatives of the Commission and the European Central Bank. But these are long-term projects that would require a great deal of fine-tuning. France and Germany are capable of agreeing on such projects in the end, but they would have to be careful that short-term disagreements did not jeopardize the political debate that is getting under way.

Paris and Berlin are not far apart on the need to strengthen the security of Europe and its citizens, notably by accelerating the establishment of a Europe-wide judicial system, with a federal police force (Europol) and a common system for policing the borders. On the eve of enlargement, these are issues that strike a chord with the general public, and on which it should be possible to assemble a majority of member states. It should thus be feasible to progress more rapidly than in the past, at least in some areas, and to create an image of a Europe on the move. That in itself would augur well for the broader political and institutional debate.

At the heart of that debate will be the question of what kind of constitution Europe should have. Is it possible to envisage the Commission transforming itself into a European government, equipped with the principal prerogatives of the national governments? The need to endow the EU with a constitution is now hardly ever called in question. But while Mr. Schroeder believes in a European government, Mr. Jospin wants the essentials of power to remain in the hands of the national governments.

The weaknesses that political observers have noted in both arguments are helping to open up the debate, and to ensure that initial positions will evolve as the discussion continues. Mr. Schroeder wants the Commission to leap to the top level of the common institutions in a single bound, but he has not said much about how this leap forward would work in practice, and particularly about how relations between this new federal executive and the national governments would be organized.

Mr. Jospin would keep the Council of Ministers and the European Council. He proposes that Ministers of European affairs should be given the rank of deputy prime minister and be required to meet every week in Brussels. He does not, however, reveal what kind of magic wand would be necessary to ensure the functioning of a deliberative body that will soon have 25 members, and later as many as 30 - even though, in its current 15-nation line-up, the Council of Ministers is already paralyzed.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number III in the Summer of 2001.