Germany and Europe: the pull of unity

About the author
John Palmer was formerly European editor of the Guardian and then Political Director of the European Policy Centre. He is a visiting practitioner fellow at the Sussex European Institute, and a member of the advisory council of the Federal Trust

The momentum behind closer European integration may have weakened but the creation and development of transnational economic and political communities is becoming very much the fashion in many parts of the world.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has decided on the creation of a free-trade area and has even set the goal of extending this to Japan, China and South Korea.

In South America, Mercosur has brought together Argentina, Brazil, Paraquay, Uruguay and (since July 2006) Venezuela, and there is talk of a Latin American regional community which may eventually include the Andean states and even Mexico.

The African Union remains more an aspiration than a reality but in southern and east Africa, the development of transnational economic unions is underway. In all cases the European Union is something of a role model and sets the benchmark for step-by-step integration.

In all these cases the momentum driving cooperation, sovereignty-sharing and - in some cases - the goal for closer integration is generated by the desire to influence and help manage globalisation itself. Whatever doubts there might be in Europe itself, the visionary statement by the European Union's "founding father" Jean Monnet - that "European integration will itself be a stage on the road to a new world order" - has not gone unnoticed outside Europe.

John Palmer is a member of the governing board of the European Policy Centre

Also by John Palmer in openDemocracy:

"After France: Europe's route from wreckage" (May 2005)

"The 'nation'-state is not enough"
(December 2005)

"The levels of democracy"
(January 2006)

"Europe's enlargement problem"
(23 May 2006)

"Europe's foreign policy: saying 'no' to the US?" (12 September 2006)

"A Commonwealth for Europe"
(11 October 2006)

"Europe won't go away" (6 February 2007)

More or less Europe?

Despite the internal crisis created by the French and Dutch rejection in 2005 of the proposed EU constitutional treaty, eighteen member-states have ratified the treaty and want it to come into force as soon as reasonably possible. A small minority - including Britain - remain on the sidelines waiting to make up their minds.

Since the "no" votes in France (29 May) and the Netherlands (1 June), the union itself has added Bulgaria and Romania. But - by law - the EU cannot enlarge any further without root-and-branch reform of the present decision-making system, which is well past its sell-by date. Until a new treaty is agreed the ambitions of countries in the western Balkans, Turkey (and maybe further afield) to join the union will have to remain indefinitely on hold.

There is no denying the blow to the self-confidence of the European integration project as a whole which was delivered by the two referenda results. The frustration of those who want to see the EU equipped with the elementary capacity to run a twenty-seven strong national economic and political union has been exacerbated by the knowledge that these votes were overwhelmingly a rejection of national governments and policies rather than rejection of moves to make the EU better able to deal with the new global challenges of climate change, energy and security. Opinion polls continue to show that - faced with major international issues such as peace, stability, security and sustainable development - Europeans want "more Europe", not less.

As has happened before in the history of the EU, it now falls to Germany - which holds the presidency of the union in the first half of 2007 - to kick-start the debate about a new treaty. At the summit of heads of state and government on 24-25 March in Berlin, the German presidency under the leadership of Angela Merkel will ask EU heads of government to endorse a major new declaration of the mission and values of the European Union. This will focus on the new global challenges which are quite beyond the capacity of individual countries to handle on their own. This declaration will underline that the new case for closer European Union is global and forward-looking rather than internal and backward-looking.

In June, the Germans hope to get summit agreement for an outline roadmap for adopting a new treaty. It will not be called a "constitution" but it will include almost all the measures set out in part one of the old treaty. These will include greater majority voting and fewer national vetoes in decision-making, an EU foreign minister and diplomatic service, and more democratic invigilation by the European and national parliaments. The European charter of fundamental rights, proclaimed at the Nice summit in December 2000 and incorporated into the constitutional treaty in June 2004, will be adopted indirectly.

However the more contentious issues raised by the integration of all past EU treaties into a single text may be delayed for more consideration. This would provide an opportunity for a more balanced language to be agreed on issues such as competition, liberal economic policies, social justice and cohesion, and sustainable development.

A great deal of what the German government can do will depend on the outcome of the French presidential election in April-May 2007, weeks before the pivotal June summit and the passing of the EU presidency from Germany to Portugal. The hope is that the new French president will be ready to negotiate a pragmatic but ambitious treaty with the goal of an agreement under Portuguese tutelage by the end of the year.

There are some signs that both Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal - whatever their other differences - want to see an end to the paralysis which has gripped the EU. With luck this might enable a new treaty to come into force in time for the next European parliament elections in June 2009 and the appointment of a new five-year commission.

Progress without miracles

If this comes to pass, it would open the prospect of the emerging European political parties fight the 2009 election with their own candidates for the commission presidency - a major landmark in the struggle for a fully democratic EU. Of course, ratification by all twenty-seven member-states remains a perilous process. In Ireland and traditionally sceptical Denmark a "yes" vote seems likely; in Sweden and Poland outright rejection seems unlikely.

The British case is something else. But a Gordon Brown government, if and when the country's current chancellor does indeed succeed Tony Blair when the prime minister retires within the next few months, may be encouraged to back the new treaty if some new understanding can be reached (notably with Paris) over further reform of agriculture and the EU budget. The profound economic changes taking place underneath the surface of French life make this less out of the question as it might have been in the past.

The case for strengthening the EU capacity to act is constantly being reinforced by the near-universal European rejection of the Bush administration's global leadership. After the disasters in Iraq and the middle east as a whole, repeated opinion polls show most Europeans want to see the EU become a more effective global actor. Concerns about energy security and the urgent need for leadership on climate change add to a growing sense that the European Union is an essential tool for managing globalisation. However, sorting out a constructive but independent-minded European energy strategy vis-a-vis Vladimir Putin's Russia remains a particularly sensitive problem for the German government. Getting an energy consensus in the EU may be as daunting a challenge for Berlin as finding a way forward on the treaty.

The striking upturn in Germany's economic fortunes has given Berlin added confidence in trying to lead the EU out of the morass of self-doubt into which it has fallen in recent years. There will be no miracles over the next few months. It is even possible that finding an agreement on the future of the European Union's governance will be delayed into the next decade. But those who wish Europe well will hope that the German presidency breaks the present logjam.