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Europe prophecies: slouching from Versailles?

Paul Hilder
30 January 2003



#1 - 23.01.2003
Where are we going?

‘TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’

This was an Irish–European prophecy, written by W.B. Yeats in 1919 – weeks after the end of the Great ‘old European’ War, weeks before the Treaty of Versailles. Today, as the blood-dimmed tide continues to gather, are Europeans the best, then, Americans or Arabs the worst? Is this continent of ours trumpeting lack of conviction? Where do we – not you or I, but we – want to go?

Those of us who are Europeans: do we know what that will mean, this century, for us and for everyone else?

Those of you who come under the heading of ‘everyone else’: stay around for the ride.

If you want to think of a little part of yourself as European, that’s fine by me.

If you’re American, you can even throw popcorn at the screen.

#2 – 24.01.2003
Two heads – singing harmony, or discord?

This week, Versailles again. Momentous too. France and Germany rededicated their friendship treaty on its fortieth anniversary. A careful but passionate intensity was in the air, though champagne was off the menu in sensitivity to Germany’s economic woes. Seated on Empire chairs, Schröder and Chirac announced joint initiative after initiative.

The world – those who noticed – reeled. They had been reeling for several days, since the announcements began. French and German ministers will attend one another’s cabinet meetings, and they plan dual citizenship for the French living in Germany, and vice versa. Are two countries starting to become one?

Often termed the ‘motor of Europe’, at least when their gears mesh, they chose for the venue of their remarriage the palace marched on by thousands of starving men and women in the French Revolution of 1789: Versailles. From there, the citizens took their king back to Paris; their Convention beheaded him four years later.

Today, a new and very different Convention is at work: in Brussels, where 104 politicians, including representatives of each European country, sit twice a month to argue the fine print of tomorrow’s Europe; fine print which, after more erasures and rewritings, will provide a blueprint for the future running of the continent.

Can it be any more important? Can it be any more boring? This is not Philadelphia, as several convention delegates have said; the assembled company must trawl through the messy compromises of the past fifty years. But the story is heating up.

The Franco–German announcement that reverberated loudest first around the continent was directed last week to this Convention on the Future of Europe, in advance of an expected showdown on the balance of power.

The battle lines were drawn. Who would lead Europe into the future?

The French wanted a new, powerful, long-term President of the Council for the nation states – a single telephone number for Bush and his Kissingers to call.

The Germans wanted a newly legitimate President of the European Commission championing the European common interest, elected by the Parliament or even, eventually, the people of Europe. (This idea bears a more federal halo.)

Now they have thrashed out their differences and decided who should lead us.

Le roi est mort. Vive les deux rois!

According to the Franco–German proposal, we will get both Presidents; yes, at once.

Le Monde, and Charles Grant (arguably the originator of the barter), called it wise compromise and division of labour. One of Grant’s trustees, corporate chieftain and former Irish–European Commissioner Peter Sutherland (who has debated globalisation with us on openDemocracy) called it dangerous nonsense.

What do you think? ‘Classic Euro-fudge’, or ‘statesman-like negotiation’? Or do you – with the old German social-democratic chancellor Helmut Schmidt in Le Monde – believe the Franco–German motor no longer exists, that this is a form of ‘auto-intoxication’?

What did the Convention say? With a clash of cymbals, the big nation states came behind the French and Germans: the UK and Spain as if choreographed, the Italians more cautiously.

But in their mid-January session intended to resolve the institutional architecture, the Convention majority supported the German proposal for the Parliament to elect the Commission President, and were sceptical about the French’s appointed President of the Council, who might threaten the Commission and Parliament as well as the small countries’ chances for a turn at the top.

Chairman Valéry Giscard d’Estaing ended the session without conclusions, save that there was a consensus for ‘maintaining the institutional balance’, and that the discussion should continue next month. His tight timescale (to conclude the Convention by June this year) is already slipping.

Then, Giscard came close to arguing in Le Figaro for the opposite; in favour of the Council Presidency, he criticised an elected Commission President as dangerously political. (As if to be apolitical were not dangerous, or Europe were apolitical; as if there were no danger in Giscard politics….)

Europe’s constitutional Convention is coming to the crunch. Its study sessions and working groups are almost over, and appearances of easy consensus are tumbling, to reveal the real remaining differences, intellectual arguments and power plays.

The foreign ministers are piling in: before Christmas, Germany’s Fischer and France’s de Villepin joined the convention; now, Greece’s Papandreou and even Rupel from Slovenia, who has only observer status as his country waits for membership. Will the Convention go on wisely deliberating, as Christine Reh has suggested? Or will it evolve into a mini-intergovernmental conference avant la lettre?

Which countries are odds-on to refuse to ratify a new European Constitution, and to be kicked out of the EU? Which populations are odds-on to reject a Constitution in a referendum? (Dominique de Villepin, to his credit, is for a Europe-wide vote on the final deal.)

The big arguments remain to be had…. Yours remain to be heard. openDemocracy is the place, [email protected] the address. In Washington (passionately): ‘Off with Saddam!’ In the engine room of Europe: ‘We lack your convictions.’

‘We’ll see whether or not the United Nations will be the United Nations or the League of Nations’ – so said George Bush in September 2002.

At Versailles, Schröder and Chirac announced they aim to take a joint position in international forums, including the UN Security Council. Was it coincidence or defiance when the pair expressed joint, firm reservations about war at the birthplace of the League of Nations and the cradle of the Second World War? They’ve left the Bushies hopping mad, anyhow.

‘Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them…?’ Hold on: the moment of decision on Iraq, like Hamlet the Dane and Turkish accession, will wait just a little longer.

Though not as long as a common European foreign policy. The new joint European declaration on Iraq that includes doves Germany and France alongside hawks Italy, Spain and the UK, not to mention the many smaller countries, adds only the patina of unity…

#4 – 29.01.2003
Fast track from Copenhagen

Again, a strange coincidence of timing: the gunning of Europe’s ‘Union-deepening’ engine at Versailles comes a bare month after Copenhagen conclusively ‘widened’ that same Union, admitting the ten accession countries, and changing its character forever.

These two axes of expansion have long been opposed, and not only by Margaret Thatcher (who explicitly saw enlargement as a tool against Franco–German approfondissement). In the wake of Copenhagen’s widening, the French and Germans, along with others in the present 15 member states, seem determined to entrench ‘deepening’ fast.

German and French Commissioners Gunter Verheugen and Pascal Lamy have even called for a full Franco–German federation, with common foreign, security, and financial policies, which they’d then open to other EU countries (paving the way for a twin-track Europe, with a rapid federal stream at its heart).

The joint Franco–German statement on Iraq, coming in the wake of NATO’s refusal to commit in advance to running a few errands for his ‘War In The Middle East’, piqued the interest of that sweet old moderate US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Rummy responded: ‘Germany has been a problem, and France has been a problem. But you look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe. They’re not with France and Germany on this, they’re with the United States. You’re thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don’t.’

Rumsfeld went on, ‘I think that’s old Europe. If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the centre of gravity is shifting to the east. And there are a lot of new members.’ Obscenities were whispered across Europe, and in one case on air. Joschka said to the Atlantic, ‘Cool down.’

The Cold Warrior has a point, sore though it might be. Copenhagen was seismic; healing a historic scar, it turns old divides into new political arguments, bringing threats and opportunities. It changed the nature of Europe at a stroke far more than bickering about Presidents, and introduces tremendous challenges in the EU-15’s own backyard.

Some even speculate that the present member states are using the ‘Future of Europe’ discussion to avoid the fact that the ground of their future has shifted so profoundly under their feet.

The new Europeans from Poland, Hungary and the eight other countries can only observe the Convention, as it races to complete its work by the halfway mark of this year. Silvio Berlusconi wants a new Treaty of Rome before 2003 is out, before the new members enter the exclusive intergovernmental club that will make the final decisions.

According to Polish minister for Europe, Danuta Hubner, Poland and Hungary believe the new treaty should wait for the ten new countries to have a full say, likely until 2004; Slovenia feels the same. They may get their way - provisions in the Copenhagen agreement indicate as much.

But an anonymous ‘European military officer’ (do such people yet exist?) said in response to the latest transatlantic furore, ‘It is not really the “old Europe” that worries Rumsfeld. It is the “new Europe” that France and Germany are creating.’

#5 – 30.01.2003
Europe Prophecies?

This will be a regular feature, part weblog, part column, following the unfolding of the Future of Europe’s still-weaving tapestry this year. Come back for updates – not the daily news our papers give us, but reflections and gossip collected in coffee shops.

‘Shadows of men in fleeting bands upon the winds: Divide the heavens of Europe:’ wrote William Blake in ‘Europe: A Prophecy’.

To this day, power in Europe remains shadowy. It’s still all to play for, and our imaginations can be better used.

A few hopes. I hope the New Europe doesn’t, as some fear it already has, become Yeats’ ‘rough beast, its hour come round at last’, slouching towards Brussels to be born. I hope we don’t mire ourselves in our past forever. And I hope we don’t just put up a wall and shut out the world, if we don’t like what we see.

[email protected]

#6 – 03.02.2003
European unity: the patina crack’d?

Last Wednesday, the Gang of Eight mugged the Franco-German Gang of Two, then spat in the face of the sketchy European common position on Iraq brokered painfully by the Greeks.

In a letter to the hawkish Wall Street Journal, the UK, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic declared… what, exactly?

“Our strength lies in unity.” Then why not invite Germany and France to sign, let alone Sweden or Luxembourg?

The gang of hawks was countering the Franco-German vanguard. The body language (“The trans-Atlantic relationship must not become a casualty”) was more significant than the content (“wish to pursue the U.N. route”), with which the French could have agreed almost word for word.

Lo! A new vanguard for Europe: the US and its courtiers, tugging at their leader’s train to turn his path a little, threatening “the Security Council will lose its credibility” if disarmament is not enforced. According to the Portugese, it’s a “geometrical variation”, not a vanguard: but this is war-diplomacy, not mathematics…

Nile Gardiner, of the Heritage Foundation, promptly applauded (rightly noting the profits France and Germany have reaped from Iraqi engagement, though in his partisanship he forgot both the old turkey of US Iraq sponsorship and the fresher goal to secure, not oil, but oil prices…).

The Greeks, and others, are furious with the splintering continent. On Wednesday 5th, Colin Powell will produce evidence for the UN (perhaps to forestall Paulo Coelho’s ferretings under the presidential bed). On the 14th, Hans Blix will report again.

In between, Greece wants an emergency summit to reconstruct the common European front. A timely report on “old” and “new” European voting patterns in the Security Council suggests in the final analysis, it may be possible: Europeans from West to East have almost always managed to perfectly align on the Middle East.

Meanwhile (malgré Gardiner) the Czech government, which refused to join its president Vaclav Havel in the Gang of Eight, claims Havel only expressed a “personal opinion” in signing…

Tomorrow: the generals of the two Euro-camps, Blair and Chirac, meet in Le Touqet. Can they converge a little? In this game of good cop-bad cop, unity seems improbable before the Second Resolution…

#7 – 04.02.2003
Turkish holidays are coming

Meanwhile, to the south: 81% of Turks are opposed to war in Iraq, but it is a crucial launching pad in US plans for the northern front. Manoeuvring with its own military, the new moderate-Islamist government has prevaricated over assistance demanded by the Pentagon.

Frustratingly, a parliamentary vote is apparently required on such tricky technical issues as “personnel for modernization of bases and ports”, “deployment of foreign soldiers in Turkey”, and “dispatch of Turkish soldiers abroad”. Decrees have been drafted, and the vote is duly expected in the next week, ahead of a nine-day Islamic holiday…

#8 – 04.02.2003
Bitter, Lower Saxony

Gerhard Schroeder stood firm in his home state Lower Saxony on Sunday and said: we will not go to war in Iraq. His Social Democrats promptly suffered what he called “the most bitter defeat I have ever known” in the state elections.

From the other side of the Atlantic, the New York Times thinks the two may be related. But 89% of Germans support their Chancellor on Iraq: shall we look to economics instead?

Ask Michael Naumann. As Germany takes on the Security Council presidency, the Die Zeit chief editor and former German minister of culture (who wrote a scintillating daily diary for us on last year’s German parliamentary elections) will shortly start a new column here on openDemocracy. Look out for it.

#9 – 04.02.2003
Buying Europe on EBay

Anti-European comment of the week: US left-winger Robert Scheer referred to the new Gang of Eight as “a fig leaf named Tony Blair and a motley collection of nations one can buy on eBay.” Europe continues to wobble an unsteady course between him and Nile Gardiner. With friends like these, who needs enemies? By the way, if you want to bid for “a motley collection of nations” on eBay, be my guest. All proceeds go to a good cause…

#10 – 06.02.2003
The posse from Vilnius

As posse diplomacy gathers pace across Europe, the Vilnius Ten ride into town!

Slovakia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia are declaring strong support for the US in light of Colin Powell’s UN case for war.

The Ten, it seems, have gone further than the Gang of Eight, even volunteering in advance for the military coalition. Are Butch Chirac and “Sundance Kid” Schroeder pinned down in the saloon?

And will their Franco-German plan for qualified majority voting among states to replace unanimity on European foreign policy (smuggled in under the blanket of the two-president proposal) come to the rescue at the last moment? Blair agrees with it... but says states must unanimously decide to opt for majority voting case-by-case (in other words, "keep the veto").

[email protected]

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