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Smart Victor, The European - 25 novembre 1994
About Germany's federalist view of Europe.


Victor Smart

SUMMARY: Has Germany alienated its EU cousins with a

hard-core vision of Europe? asks Victor Smart

(The European, 25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1994)

Germany speaks with a bluntness that only a rich and powerful country can afford to display. Even so, it has been unnerving to hear Bonn state quite so baldly in the run-up to the Maastricht II review, scheduled for 1996, that it wants a hard-core Europe to make political and economic integration an "irreversible" fact before the decade is out.

The message has been banged home apparently regardless of the sensitivities of other governments or their peoples. Rome and Madrid are miffed at being left out. Even the smaller, federalist-inclined states such as the Netherlands have felt obliged to make a token show of displeasure.

So has Germany, whose pivotal geographical position, if nothing else, would ensure it a place at the heart of Europe, finally lost touch with its neighbours?

To smooth ruffled feathers, Karl Lamers, European affairs spokesman of Germany's ruling Christian Democrats and effective author of the notorious hard-core plan, has in recent days been dispatched on a European roadshow. Lamers is far from an overbearing individual. Yet his mission is to explain, not to backtrack.

He restated his vision in last week's European. After his visit to Paris the centre-left daily Libération described his move as like a "bull in a china shop".

Across the Channel the jaws of audiences have dropped open as the mildmannered German has explained his sadness that "we don't have a European people yet" before going on to outline the breakneck introduction of sweeping new powers for the European Parliament, the erosion of the national veto and creation of a single currency.

If Lamers has any regrets it is his explicit exclusion of Italy from the charmed inner circle planned for Europe. Silvio Berlusconi was one of the first to complain to the German Chancellor about Italy's relegation to secondtier status and Lamers, a Rheinland Catholic, goes dewy-eyed over the Italian role in European culture.

Even so, Lamers is unrepentant: Italy's economy fails to qualify for the single currency. The uncompromising message is Europa über alles. Taken at face value, the German proposals have broken one of the most basic canons of diplomacy: never say what you mean too explicitly lest you lose room for subsequent manoeuvre.

However, some suspect Bonn could be playing a game of brinkmanship, pushing excessive demands deliberately so that even halfway would satisfy it.

Either way, the hard-core idea has convulsed Europe. Inevitably, the schism is strongest between Germany and Britain where Brusselsbashing is a national pastime. If Lamers hopes to start a debate in Britain over the merits of his blueprint for Europe, this betrays naivety.

For what is in the offing is a confrontation between two irreconcilable mind-sets, one believing the nationstate is ready for burial, the other very attached to it.

How can the British understand Lamers's claim that the alternative to federalism is centralism when to them federalism equals centralism?

Another pointer to the looming dialogue of the deaf is the recent reporting of the Luxembourg-based Court of Auditors' report on the EU budget. Where the British press splashed the findings over the front pages, in Germany the allegations made scarcely a ripple. Justifying his paper's treatment of the story in Frankfurter Allgemeine, the international editor Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger commented: "In Germany, because of our proEuropean attitude, good news about the European Union is big news, the reverse of the British case."

This creates the paradox articulated by Fernando Moran Lopez, chairman of the European Parliament's institutional committee. "The most sceptical countries on Europe are the best informed about it," says the Spanish MEP.

Better informed, perhaps, but are the fainthearted Europeans so adept at reading the runes on integration? The answer is No. Britain has consistently underestimated the impetus behind the process of European union and found itself badly wrong-footed.

Most notably, the press hailed the collapse of the exchange rate mechanism in the summer of 1993 as the end of a single currency. The cover of the weekly Economist captured the mood:"Europe fails to earth". Yet a year on the ERM crisis has proved an ordeal which has significantly bolstered the single currency enthusiasts.

One German-based diplomat comments: "Britain is out of the mainstream but doesn't seem to know it. In Bonn, sceptical comment from Britain is just 'noises off'. Kohl believes the great European convoy can and should go on regardless."

It is evident that in Bonn's eyes Euro scepticism is merely the last refuge of the failing politician. Can it be a coincidence, asks one senior German source, that John Major hit on the idea of vetoing Jean-Luc Dehaene as the new Commission president at the moment he faced a leadership challenge within his own party? Or that Jacques Chirac, who recently urged a referendum on a single currency, is trailing both Balladur and Delors badly in the opinion polls?

Admittedly, Kohl's ideas may be blunted by his waferthin Bundestag majority. Once again, however, wishful thinking on the part of the anti-federalists abroad can easily exaggerate the importance of this.

For one thing, there is an astonishing unity among the German political class about the necessity of a rapid dash to Euro-federalism: the hard-core Europe plan has won backing from all mainstream parties in Bonn.

Lamers's hopes of sparking a weighty discussion on federalism do stand a realistic chance elsewhere, especially in France.

The shift in the popular mood against Maastrichtstyle union is matched by the fact that most of the French elite still hold to a federal Europe as an article of faith. If Bonn is to win popular legitimacy for its European dream, it clearly needs that debate to ignite as soon as possible.

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