Why is Europe struggling so hard to find a way out of its political impasse and develop a bold and convincing vision for its future?
In the last ten years after the poor outcome of the Amsterdam Treaty criticism has focussed on the method to reform the European institutions. Inter-governmental conferences have been blamed as undemocratic and capable of brokering only low-profile compromises.
The alternative in the form of the European Convention has been blamed by some governments as detached from political reality and by federalists for lacking the power to act as a genuine constituent assembly. After the referenda in France and The Netherlands national ratifications are being blamed for leaving European choices to erratic national debates and making the yes of the many dependent on the no of the few.
While such criticisms contain some truth, at the same time they fail to see a much more profound trend:
Successful widening + failed deepening = current stalemate
The combined challenge facing Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall (i.e. to reunify Germany, build the Euro, extend the Union to new members and at the same time deepen the Union’s political structures) has been lost. The enlargement of the Union to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe has been a crucial factor for Europe’s economic and political stability and so is today the prospect to enlarge the Union to the Balkan countries and later on to Turkey.
Nonetheless the enlargement, coupled with the lack of a political project around the Euro, has led to a Union with twenty-seven (thirty in the not too distant future) ever more heterogeneous members with very diverse attitudes on the Union, its structure, its policies, its place in the world and most of all the finality of European integration.
The attitude of some countries can swing with a change of government but the sheer opposition of some new and old member states to the prospect of pooling their sovereignty into a European federation is deeply rooted in their history and the nature of their political class and public opinion. No surprise that the Treaty establishing a European Constitution dissatisfies both the nationalists for being too centralistic and the pro-Europeans for being too weak. No surprise that today even the prospect to rescue a downsized version of the treaty is proving a hard task.
The way out - core Europe!
In the next months the national governments will search for a solution to the current crisis of the constitutional treaty in a somehow watered-down treaty brokered through a classical intergovernmental conference.
If they succeed, the treaty will improve certain mechanisms of a continent-wide yet loose Union, but it will change neither the structural nature of the Union, nor the direction of its development.
If they fail, they will leave Europe in disarray and at risk to unravel.
In either case, the ultimate choice is the same: accept the slow but inevitable development of the Union into a European version of the United Nations or try and rescue the project of the United States of Europe starting from a core of countries where the attitude of the political class and citizens make such project at least conceivable, even if immensely difficult. The natural frame of such a core is the Euro-zone, but most likely the group taking an initiative would be even narrower, comprising France, Germany and some of the other founders, possibly supported by others such as Spain, Slovenia and Austria.
Proposals for a core Europe are not new in the recent history of the European project. In the early Nineties Mitterrand and Delors raised the idea of a federation within a confederation to address the challenge of deepening and enlarging the Community. In 1994, a Kerneuropa was proposed by CDU-CSU’s Schauble-Lamers paper to complement the creation of the Euro with a limited number of countries. In 2000 the then German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer came up again with the idea of a vanguard for a federation. The Belgian Prime Minister Verhofstad has recently supported the idea of the United States of Europe between the Euro countries.
Every time other political urgencies and the enormous political difficulty of such a project have prevailed. Time for a choice is approaching again, maybe for the last time.