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A blurred vision for the future of Europe

Read Carefully

Last week foreign ministers from ten EU countries published the initial outcomes of a series of meetings of the ‘Westerwelle Group’. This group, named after the German foreign minister, has held meetings over the past three months.

The ministers’ objective is high-minded: set out a new vision for the future of Europe. But the outcome is underwhelming: there are many fine words, but a lack of new ideas. Andrew Duff, a British Liberal MEP who is a member of the federalist Spinelli Group, said:

Mr Duff is right to criticise. The concept of the initial paper seems to be a retread of numerous previous reports. Like the Laeken declaration of 2001, the Westerwelle paper is focused on the questions arising from ‘the democratic challenge’, and ‘Europe’s role in the world’. The same questions that were meant to be answered by the European Convention, the draft constitutional treaty and the Lisbon Treaty, but which remain unanswered.

The content of the paper is not particularly original; it contains many ideas that have been thrown around in EU circles for some time now (such as combining the roles of President of the European Commission and President of the European Council – something that is already possible under the Lisbon Treaty).

The paper is not original or radical; it hardly represents a ‘vision’

It is not radical either. It hardly represents a ‘vision’, and the proposals couched in the most conditional and vague terms, full of phrases like ‘could’, ‘should think about’, ‘need to consider’, and ‘in the longer term’.

That is not to say that the paper is all bad. It is good to see backing for several good ideas to improve the EU institutions, such as having candidates for the Commission presidency as figureheads in European Parliament elections (an idea already taken up by the Party of European Socialists), holding European elections on the same day across the EU, or creating a limited EU-wide list of candidates (a debate being led – without much progress – by Mr Duff in the European Parliament).

Reducing the size of the Commission, having sectoral Councils headed by permanent presidents (possibly commissioners), and creating a single EU president are all sensible ideas. And there are good ideas for further economic integration to deal with the euro crisis.

There may be a deeper motive for a re-ordering of Europe; a challenge to the laggards to make their minds up. The ministers express their desire to see all member states subscribe to these plans, but that would seem to be impossible. In the UK, the Daily Express has already dismissed the group and its ideas as a plot to end the nation state; while the Express is at the loonier end of the scale, an overwhelmingly Eurosceptic Conservative Party, a hostile media and a suspicious public make it impossible for the UK to join in. Others would probably be reluctant too.

Europe is a set of eccentric, not concentric circles. It is messy; and it is messy for perfectly understandable cultural, historical and practical reasons

The ministers’ alternative is ‘enhanced cooperation’ between a core group of member states who wish to go further without being held back by the UK and others. This avant-garde can tuck into the federalist ‘meat’ of the proposals: increased foreign policy powers, including a common EU seat in international organisations (although the UK and France may have something to say about that); a European border police; European visas; a European army; more QMV; a European government. The rest – the periphery – would be left with the status quo (or even something watered down).

Such a split is easier said than done. Changes to the institutions would have to be agreed by all: the alternative is even more Byzantine institutions, or parallel bodies. Also, the paper highlights divisions between the ministers on certain issues, and it is unlikely that a simple core/periphery split could be achieved. Poland may support ‘more Europe’, but it is outside the euro; Ireland, a member of the single currency bloc, is outside Schengen, is unlikely to back political union, and would oppose a European army. Europe is a set of eccentric, not concentric circles. It is messy; and it is messy for perfectly understandable cultural, historical and practical reasons.

Finally, and most importantly, would the public wear these changes? I would think not. There may be public acceptance of further European integration to deal with the crisis – a banking union or Eurobonds, for example – but there is little appetite for more. In the last Eurobarometer report, data showed a plunge in positive perceptions of the EU.

Faced with these barriers, doing the bare minimum to stop the pain of the crisis seems the only option. More may be desirable to many, but the obstacles seem to be too great. And so the Westerwelle document – lacking ambition, originality, united support for its ideas (even from the authors) and the necessary political context for implementation, seems destined for the recycling bin – perhaps to be reincarnated as the wrapping for a waffle.