Year XLV, 2003, Number 3, Page 177
THE DIVISION OF THE EUROPEAN UNION
The split that occurred between the countries of the EU at the Brussels summit in mid-December over adoption of the text of the “Constitutional Treaty”, and the long confrontation among the states that preceded it, have both served to highlight with extreme clarity the increasing depth of Europe’s division. In this regard, two considerations are essential. The first relates to the fact that adoption of the so-called European Constitution would not have rendered the Union the slightest bit stronger or more cohesive, and thus would not have made it possible to overcome the problem of the continent’s division; the second relates to the “two-speed Europe” debate triggered by the failure of the conference.
In reference to the first of these points, it must be recalled that the Convention had been assigned a specific mandate: to draw up proposals for a new treaty that would render the Union more democratic, closer to the citizens, and able to act more effectively, following the previous failure, in precisely these regards, of not one but two IGCs — the two that had produced, respectively, the Treaty of Amsterdam and the Treaty of Nice. Indeed, neither of these treaties addressed the urgent need for institutional reform that the single currency’s need for government, on the one hand, and the enlargement of the EU, on the other, had made patently clear. In spite of a protracted and heated debate, in the ‘90s, on the future of Europe and the urgent need to deepen its political structure, the question asked in ‘98 by Hans Tietmayer, then president of the Bundesbank, (“Is political union more a condition or a consequence of monetary union?”) remained unanswered; similarly, the idea, at the time current, of creating a system of concentric circles, with the most deeply integrated countries at the centre, as a means of giving the Union the flexibility it needed to embrace new members, or of creating something akin to what Giscard d’Estaing more recently defined a “federation within the confederation”, also failed to elicit a response.
Theoretically, then, the Convention should have helped the Union to achieve that step-up, in quality terms, that the previous years had failed to produce, given that the euro was a reality whose limitations, deriving from the lack of a single European government of the economy, were now a very real problem, and given that enlargement was now a certainty — one with which the Union’s institutional order was manifestly ill-equipped to cope.
As confirmation of these contradictions stirring the Union throughout 2002 and the first half of 2003, while the Convention was debating the future of Europe, the signs of the EU’s increasingly precarious situation started to multiply: first of all, some of the states (France and Germany in particular), hit by severe economic stagnation, had problems respecting the terms of the Stability Pact; in more general terms, however, we can cite the dependence of Europe as a whole on the USA’s economic trend, and its incapacity to find its own, independent route to recovery. The storm that blew up at the end of November 2003, following Ecofin’s decision not to impose penalties on France and Germany for exceeding the budget-deficit limits laid down by the Stability Pact and the reaction of the European Commission, which, as this piece is being written, has decided to fight the decision through legal channels, had been brewing for some time. It was a storm that was, after all, both predictable and inevitable, since it is madness to imagine that the eurozone countries can go on indefinitely having no proper economic policy — something they are no longer equipped to formulate individually, and which they cannot even develop together, not having transferred the necessary powers to European level — but only restrictive rules that may certainly prompt virtuous conduct in phases of economic expansion, but which quickly become straitjackets in times of recession. Having said that, until such time as a European government of the economy is created, these rules will remain indispensable in order to preserve cohesion within the eurozone. Thus, a contradiction is perpetuated that threatens to lead Europe to ruin. The only possible solution is the transition to political union already solicited by Tietmeyer’s question, which means transferring sovereignty from the states to Europe and transforming the Union into a federal state, equipped with all the competencies and instruments needed in order to govern Europe’s economy and currency effectively and democratically, with the consensus and under the control of the citizens. This is what the Convention should have been working towards, had it wanted to come up with real solutions to the contradictions generated by a European currency that is forced to exist in the absence of a European power.
In addition to the economic crisis, the work of the Convention also coincided with a dramatic event that threw into sharp relief Europe’s urgent need for a single political identity as well: the war in Iraq. The impotence of the European states, forced to choose between the servility of those who know they cannot oppose the extraordinary power of the strongest force and thus seek to ingratiate themselves with it, and the hopeless opposition of a minority, demonstrated an unequivocal truth: that only a strong and independent Europe could have made a difference. In this instance, too, faced with the need to create a European foreign and security policy, it is clear that the transfer of sovereign powers from the states to Europe is the only realistic option. Weak and misleading efforts to create a European defence on the basis of closer cooperation among a few states can, of course, produce only ridiculous results, such as the setting up, recently agreed by France, Germany and Great Britain (under the watchful eye of the United States and NATO), of a “European military planning cell”.
But was it realistic to imagine that the Convention might really be capable of transforming the Union into a true federation? Clearly not, and for a number of reasons. Unlike an IGC, the Convention had the considerable advantage of not being restricted by the need to reach unanimous decisions — the advantage, indeed, of not even having to worry about the question of voting. The decision-by-consensus formula that it adopted was meant to make it possible — and did, in fact make it possible, thanks to the authority of the Presidium — to cut through the most controversial issues. It was thus easier for the Convention, compared with an IGC, to reach agreements, but this was due precisely to the fact that it was not accountable in the final instance. The Convention’s work was influenced by the knowledge that any decisions it might reach would later be taken, definitively, by the governments, knowledge that allowed it to ignore dissenting voices. Its mandate was thus determined, in both its form and its substance, by the will of the governments, and all the governments asked it to do was produce a series of proposals for improving the working of the Union without upsetting its existing institutional balances (which rest on the fact that the states have ultimate decision-making power).
The Convention thus worked — and it could not have been otherwise — not with a view to getting Europe to take a political (the federal) leap forwards, but rather with a view to rendering the Union more “governable”, something that in many cases meant giving the states a little more control over the European institutions in an endeavour to reduce, even minimally, the huge democratic deficit implicit in the working of a twenty-five-state confederation with numerous powers to intervene in the internal affairs of its member states. This is the framework outlined by Giscard d’Estaing in ‘94 when, in the course of the debate over the creation of a more closely integrated core of countries at Europe’s heart, he drew a distinction between what he called Europe as a power (made up of those countries willing to give Europe an independent political identity) and Europe as a space (the larger Europe), and underlined the need to equip these two Europes with different rules and institutional systems, precisely in virtue of their different ends. The task assigned the Convention was to work on Europe as a space. This was clear from its membership, which included representatives even from candidate EU member countries. The marked heterogeneity of its members was, indeed, the dominant feature of this assembly in which nations with radically differing attitudes to the process of European integration were represented, and in which agreements had to be reached among countries presenting vastly differing degrees of integration, and whose national interests have still not been rendered convergent by a decades-long participation in a common process.
As a result, the Convention was unable to tackle the problem of European economic government, and ignored entirely the divisions over the war in Iraq that were tearing the Union apart (incredibly enough, priding itself on its ability to leave that crisis “outside” its discussions), concentrating instead on the search for a compromise — necessarily a low-profile one — that might be acceptable to everyone. The so-called Constitutional Treaty that it delivered was thus nothing other than a very modest dressing up of the old treaties, which, for the first time, openly declared unmodifiable the current balance of powers in Europe, that is, the balance on whose basis the states retain their sovereignty and their power to implement decisions reached at European level. The solutions it proposes to the thorniest problems (external representation of the Union, the voting method, the composition of the European Commission) neither modify the nature of the institutions involved, nor render them more efficient and democratic, but simply seek to remedy old contradictions by introducing new ones, which is what inevitably occurs in any confederal system. For example, in areas where the majority voting system provided for by the previous treaty was seen to be excessively advantageous to the medium-sized countries, it was modified in favour of the larger and smaller ones; or, in a measure commensurate with the degree to which to which the composition of the enlarged commission (originally intended, again by the previous treaty, to serve as a guarantee for the smaller countries) excessively penalised the large states, intermediate solutions were sought that in reality merely generate new imbalances. In relation to the previous Treaties of Amsterdam and of Nice, the new text — and this is also the view of many expert commentators — failed to deliver any new feature that might genuinely favour the taking of real steps forwards in the process of the building of Europe (a view also expressed by political commentators the day after the closure of the Convention).
The fact that the states have rejected the proposed “Constitution” — arguing over whether to keep the old incongruencies in place or replace them with new ones — does not alter the terms of the problem: the real issue to be solved continues to be the progressive and unstoppable moving away from the prospect of political union that today characterises the framework of the Union and is accompanied by worrying resurgences of nationalism.
In the light of these considerations, it also becomes easier to analyse the “two-speed Europe” problem. The fact that this concept continues to resurface indicates that there still exists a glimmer of awareness both of the need to progress along the road to European unity — and it is no coincidence that this is the position emerging within the ambit of the Europe’s founding countries, which, given their deeper involvement in the process of European unification, feel more keenly the weight of its disunity — and of the fact that this progress can be achieved only in a narrower framework than that of the present Union. Those who instead argue that the Union must be made to move forward en bloc, and condemn the two-speed concept as an attempt to undermine European unity, in reality seek — consciously or unconsciously — to preserve, and indeed, in the light of current trends, to deepen, Europe’s division. The European Union is not able to advance at a single speed, since it has ceased to be an evolving framework. This is not to suggest that the Union is useless (no one can deny that the consequences of its disintegration would be disastrous), nor that it should be dismantled in order to allow a group of states to deepen their reciprocal integration. The European Union is still the ambit that will allow the gradual integration of new countries, which will necessarily require longer periods of time to become assimilated. But only the presence, within the EU, of a federal core of states can enable it to fulfil this role, giving it the stability needed to counter the inevitable disintegrative forces to which all confederations are subject. At the same time, the federal core will serve as an example, indicating to new members the right direction in which to move. In this framework, the European institutions, whose role today is, objectively, to defend and preserve the status quo, would become the link between the federation and the rest of the Union, ensuring that the process of integration remains open to those countries that are not yet ready to relinquish their sovereignty.
We thus need to return to the debate of the ‘90s on the need to create a federation within the confederation, and to give this theory the substance of fact: we need to identify clearly the objective (the federal state), the framework within which this objective can be pursued (the core group of countries that possess the historical and political requisites to assume this responsibility — the founding countries inevitably emerging as the most likely candidates) and the method (a federal pact among these countries, and the convening of a constituent assembly with a mandate to draw up the federal constitution of the European state, which any other state of the Union wishing to do so may subsequently apply to join).
This is clearly an initiative that necessitates a break with the existing treaties and one that must inevitably — to begin with at least — be pursued outside the framework and logic of the Union. But it is a crucial break, which represents the indispensable premise for safeguarding the unity of the European people, and which will immediately be repaired upon entry of the federation into the Union and upon the predictable enlargement of the initial federal core to the many states that are not, at the present time, ready to support an initiative of this kind, but which will want to join it once it has become a reality.
However, the current debate on the question of a two-speed Europe fails to touch on any of this. It gets only as far as that first glimmer of awareness before, perhaps daunted by the difficulties inherent in carrying the idea through to its logical conclusion, veering off in the direction of minimalist if not dangerous proposals. The idea currently gaining most support and being most widely discussed, particularly in France and Germany, seems to be that of enhanced cooperation, an idea that retains a certain validity whether or not an agreement on the “Constitution” is reached within the year. Indeed, the treaties in force already make provision for this option and the Franco-German idea would seem to be — use of the conditional is mandatory, given that the ideas that are circulating are still extremely vague — to give those countries deeming it opportune the possibility to cooperate more closely in various sectors, in accordance ultimately, with their respective national interests. It is a prospect that would do absolutely nothing to encourage movement in a federal direction, that would indeed get in its way, since it would — should it ever come about — lead to the creation of a network of asymmetrical and overlapping alliances that would inevitably generate tension and contrapositions within the bosom of the EU. Neither is it conceivable that this danger might be averted by a group deciding to take up all the opportunities for enhanced cooperation in a bid to form the heart of Europe: not even France and Germany could do this, because it would be impossible for them to maintain a sufficient coincidence of interests.
The inadequate reactions to the failure of the Brussels summit, even considering the idea of a two-speed Europe, might thus be seen as an indication of the difficulties that the process of European integration is currently going through. Faced with the clear need to take a real leap forward in quality terms, even the states most deeply committed to the idea of European unity are going into reverse gear; lacking the courage to make the radical choices that are needed, they take refuge behind counterproductive hypotheses. It is hard to say how long Europe will be able to go on withstanding this situation. What we can say with certainty is that the rest of the world is not waiting on our decisions, and that Europeans today are not equipped to rise to the challenges presented by this new century. At best — failing the emergence, in a reasonably short space of time, of some reaction — History, which is already banishing our continent to the sidelines, will condemn Europe to inexorable civil, social and political decline. And that is the best-case scenario, since the effects of Europe’s disunity could well be far, far more dramatic.