The EU Moves Ahead At Last
By Joschka Fischer
With much noise and commotion, the European Union has sidestepped catastrophe â€“ but only just. It was damned close. In a united effort, a major crisis that would have openly divided the Union for years to come and which would have made Europe a global laughingstock was averted.
The EU ran aground two years ago when France and the Netherlands said no to the European constitution. With the new agreement, the Union has once again started to move.
While the mandate for an intergovernmental conference to develop a new treaty will create something less than a constitution, the coming treaty will go well beyond the present Treaty of Nice â€“ provided things go according to what has been agreed. But two steep hurdles still need to be overcome: the intergovernmental conference and ratification through the national parliaments or by means of a referendum in all member states.
Still, German Chancellor Angela Merkel can be proud of what was achieved. It is her first real success in international diplomacy. That Friday night in Brussels involved very real and tough decisions. The German chancellor played for high stakes and won. She deserves respect and recognition.
If the new treaty comes into being, the institutional reforms that the union needs will become a reality, and a new double majority voting procedure will take effect, even if with some delay. The EU has worked for 20 years on these reforms. The enlarged Union, inevitable when Europeâ€™s Cold War division ended in 1989, needed new institutions to act efficiently and with transparency.
The new treaty is supposed to become effective in 2009. Twenty years seems to be what it takes Europe to change, and that is anything but reassuring.
The treaty calls for a new EU foreign minister â€“ although he is formally denied that title, this is what everyone will call him â€“ with a strong administrative infrastructure in the European Commission and the Council. The rotating presidency will be replaced by an elected President of the Council. A new balance will be struck between the EU and member states, and a stronger role will be given to the European Parliament and the national parliaments. EU citizens will be endowed with legally binding fundamental rights, and majority decisions will become the general norm.
A high price had to be paid for this agreement. The new treaty is not simpler or more transparent than the rejected Constitution, quite the contrary. And the wrangling in the run-up to and in Brussels itself surely did not contribute to the EUâ€™s popularity among its citizens. Indeed, the damage sustained in the process will linger. The following consequences are already foreseeable:
First, that night of hard negotiations in Brussels reinforced the two-tier Europe for the next two decades. The recalcitrant states achieved a Pyrrhic victory because it will quickly become clear to them that, even if the EU is getting a new institutional framework, the avantgarde countries will decide among themselves what the concrete arrangements will look like. Enhanced cooperation among these countries and the Euro zone will be the instrument for this.
Second, Franco-German cooperation has shown itself all the more indispensable in the enlarged Union. Despite all the differences that might exist between the two countries â€“ differences that are likely to grow â€“ there is no alternative to their alliance.
Third, the UK has once again weakened its own position within Europe. Its policy of â€œopting outâ€ keeps Britain on the sidelines of the EU. This will further reduce the importance of Britain, both in Europe and in the world.
The political and economic significance of all the mid-sized European powers is waning, and they are shrinking relative to the US and the rising giants of Asia. Only a strong Europe can provide the necessary counterweight. A UK that plays a marginal role within the EU will thus lose its influence even faster, including its special voice in the US.
Fourth, Poland has to ask itself what kind of role it wants to play within the EU. Poland is an important country within the Union. Properly considered, Polandâ€™s existential interests, its geopolitical location, and its history, demand that it do everything to contribute as much as possible to a strong EU. Instead, the nationalistic government in Warsaw is bent on isolating itself within Europe.
The Poles should ask themselves the following question: Would, Polandâ€™s traditional security concern, Russia, be happy or sad if the Polish government had really carried out its threat and used its veto to block the Brussels agreement? The answer is clear: of course, the Russians would have rubbed their hands in jubilation and secretly celebrated the twin brothers at the head of the Polish state.
Ukraine, on the other hand, whose cause in Europe the Poles ostensibly champion, would have been in serious difficulties in the wake of a Polish veto. It is not for nothing that Ukraineâ€™s President Viktor Yushchenko tried, or so it is said, to make this clear to the Polish leadership in several telephone calls.
The damage to German-Polish relations also goes beyond the spat between the two governments, and reaches deep into both German and Polish societies. It will not be easily repaired. This is important because a consistent European policy toward Russia â€“ one of the key urgent challenges facing Europe â€“ depends on close cooperation between Poland and Germany.
As I said, it is too early to celebrate. The time for celebrations will come only after the new treaty is ratified. Indeed, the circumstances under which the Brussels compromise has been reached leave a bitter aftertaste. But still, last Friday the EU took a decisive step in the right direction.
nosce te ipsum