France, Germany and "hard-core" Europe

France, Germany and "hard-core" Europe

Bulletin article
01 August 2001

In Paris, thinking on the future of the EU tends to focus on two French worries. One is the decline of the Franco-German relationship, and the consequent threat to French influence. The other is the prospect that EU enlargement will lead to a looser Europe with weaker institutions, that is more likely to succumb to Anglo-Saxon economic, social and cultural norms.

These fears are evident in a provocative Le Monde article, published on June 20th, that attracted less attention outside France than it deserved. The authors - Jean-Noel Jeanneney, Pascal Lamy, Henri Nallet and Dominique Strauss-Kahn - are four of the Socialist Party's leading thinkers and pro-Europeans. The authors are right to say that enlargement poses huge challenges to the EU. However, their proposed answer, a two-speed Europe, is an unworkable idea which - even if it were feasible - would be bad for the EU.

The authors argue that if the EU lets in large numbers of Central and East European countries, it will no longer be capable of developing the political will or the mechanisms that stronger social, industrial and foreign policies will require. So they revive the idea put forward last year by Joschka Fischer (in his Humboldt University speech) and by Jacques Delors (in CER Bulletin No 14): a core group of countries, committed to "an ambitious idea of Europe...which would show the way and the direction we prefer".

The Nice Treaty made it easier for a group of countries to move ahead of the rest in particular policy areas. But the authors have no faith in the Nice model of "enhanced co-operation", which could lead to overlapping core groups. "We cannot wait for these groupings to aggregate and mesh a process too haphazard, long, obscure and complex."

Instead, France should, as a first step, offer Germany a "strengthened union for two". There would be joint meetings of the two parliaments and cabinets, plus a permanent secretariat, to promote economic, cultural, educational, scientific, diplomatic and military co-operation. The second step would be for this tandem to appeal to others in the euro-zone to join them - so long as they were committed to "a model of social solidarity and external independence".

One benefit of creating a core, say the authors, would be the arrival of a real "economic government"; another would be the capacity to react more effectively - with diplomatic and military means - in security crises. Once the core countries had agreed on their political objectives, they would adopt a constitution.

However, none of this would work. For a start, most EU members - and all prospective members - are against the idea of a two-speed Europe. The accession states do not want to fulfil their ambition of joining the EU only to discover that they have been excluded from a new club. Furthermore, Britain and the Nordic states are not the only current members which - fearing exclusion - are hostile to the idea of a core. The Spanish and the Italians are not sure they would be in it, either.

Since most members oppose a two-speed Europe, France and Germany could not proceed unless they acted outside the scope of the EU treaties, creating a new and separate organisation. The result would be a huge divide between two groups of member-states. Notwithstanding Fischer's speech, Germany would probably prove too communautaire and too committed to its role as a champion of the accession states to risk such a rift.

It is also unrealistic to suppose - as the authors do - that the EU can develop a hard core in foreign and defence policy that excludes Britain. The EU's recent moves towards a common defence policy have depended on British and French leadership and military capabilities. The French defence establishment knows perfectly well that Germany is a long way away from being a credible military partner.

Nor can Franco-German leadership be relied upon to set the EU?s agenda for foreign policy. The various member-states have their own special interests and expertise, Spain and Latin America for instance, which the EU will need to draw upon if it is to build effective foreign policies.

The Euro Group of finance ministers is likely to become a stronger body, but it will not become the kind of hard core envisaged by Mr Strauss-Kahn and his friends. All countries joining the euro become members of the group automatically, and its influence will not extend beyond economic policy. The Euro Group is not going to decide how and when the EU intervenes in, say, Macedonia.

A two-speed Europe would pose huge technical and judicial problems. The hard core would need to use new institutions, or - if the excluded consented - modified versions of the existing ones. The Commission would be left weaker, upsetting the smaller countries which see it as their protector. What would be the role of the Parliament and the Court in the new system? Would members of those institutions from non-core countries vote on core-group business? One of the authors once remarked at a CER seminar that the judicial problems of creating a union within a union would be insurmountable. But even if they could be solved, the result would be greater institutional complexity, and thus an EU even less appealing than that of today.

France needs to wake up to the fact that the world has changed in the half-century since the EU was founded. Just because France and Germany ran the EU from 1950 until the mid-1990s, it does not mean that they should or can do so forever. To be sure, they will remain the two most influential powers, especially if Britain stays out of the euro.

But if, as is likely, the EU has 25 members after 2004 or 2005, it will be impossible for any two of them to dominate as they did in the past. The French should adjust to a Europe of more fluid, issue-focused alliances - and they should note that the Germans, unlike themselves, have already developed close ties with Central European countries.

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