When enlargement of the EU to the countries of central and eastern Europe still appeared to be a remote prospect, many politicians in the member states claimed to be convinced of the need, prior to enlargement, to achieve a real strengthening of the Union’s institutions. They were aware that this was essential if the EU were to be able to withstand the impact that the entry of these new countries would have on it, and be kept from turning into a free trade area that, stripped of all political momentum and legitimacy, would be destined, in the end, to disintegrate. But as the dates set drew nearer, and the time came to start making concrete decisions, the various presidents-in-office proved to be entirely incapable of advancing coherent and consistent proposals. This culminated in the failure of the Nice summit, which severely undermined the European institutions and weakened the prestige of Union.
The Irish referendum has drawn attention to a state of decision-making incapacity and confusion that was already all too clear to see. It has also had repercussions on the very process of enlargement, which is continuing to advance (because that is in the nature of things), but only in a climate characterised by reticence, ambiguity and procrastination. The endeavour to achieve continental unification, an endeavour that has allowed western Europe to enjoy half a century of peace and prosperity, is running a serious risk of failure. The Franco-German alliance, which thus far has been the driving force of the process, is showing cracks and this is feeding, and opening up the way for the emergence of, nationalistic or micronationalistic, protectionist and authoritarian tendencies in the states of the Union.
Can it really be hoped that the current Union, to say nothing of an enlarged Union, might carry off in the coming years all that it has failed to achieve to date? The answer is no. It is important to take note of the fact that politicians and public opinion in Great Britain and Scandinavia continue to be strongly opposed not only to the prospect of the federal unification of Europe, but also to any suggestion of a strengthening of the Union’s institutions, and negative attitudes are also starting to emerge in some traditionally pro-European countries. Furthermore, the countries that are candidates for EU membership, which, in spite of all the difficulties, are destined to become increasingly drawn into the Union’s decision-making mechanisms, albeit in an informal way to begin with, declare quite openly that they have no intention of renouncing their recently regained sovereignty. The fact must be recognised that a serious debate on this problem cannot even be started in the fragile framework of the current fifteen member states; indeed, even proposals for reform that in other settings would appear reticent and minimalist are rejected as unacceptable threats to national sovereignty by the governments of some of the member states. The idea that the current European Union or, even more unlikely, an enlarged Union might prove able to develop a new institutional structure that is democratic and capable of acting is nothing more than an illusion that it is high time to do away with.
Many of Europe’s politicians, while their sights may not be set clearly on the objective of federal unity, nevertheless appreciate that the salvation of the continent depends on a radical strengthening of the Union’s institutions. But as long as they continue to be proposed in the current 15-member framework – on the brink of enlarging to 20 or 25 members – the declarations they make and the proposals they advance inevitably sound fanciful and propagandistic. It is now crucial for these politicians to realise that any project whose aim is the creation of a solid political union (of whatever form) has now become impracticable in this setting. And it seems that some are beginning to realise that it is only by changing the framework that the process can start moving again, and become irreversible.
What this means is that, if the idea of political unity is to recover credibility, the process must be restarted in the context of a smaller group of countries that has sufficient solidity and strength of will to advance. This group can only be the six founder members of the European Community,countries that share a long tradition of integration and in which public opinion, although more detached from the process than it once was as a result of the distance that is opening up between the European institutions and the citizens, is still strongly pro-European in inclination. This is the only framework within which the Franco-German engine might once more start running and showing its power of unification, thereby defeating the forces in Germany that are pressing for a movement away from France and for the creation of an area of German influence over eastern Europe. It is the only framework in which credibility can be given to the question of the formation of a federal core.
This is the basis of the current divide between those who want a unified Europe and those who do not; indeed, the federal core question is the one that prompts the most strongly negative reactions on the part of the governments keenest to hold on to their national sovereignty. It is important to realise that political unification of the Six would be the only means of allowing the process of enlargement, without stirring up the threat of a crisis and overcoming all resistance, to continue. This is because it would have the effect of creating, within the EU, a solid area that would be endowed with the strength to resist current disintegrative trends and to prevent the Union from losing sight of its political vocation, and would also exert a strong force of attraction over the other states to whom membership of federal core would always remain an option, subject to their acceptance of its constitution. In this way, enlargement would cease to be a constant threat to European cohesion, which, irrespective of enlargement, is already showing signs of a progressive weakening. Instead, it would become the first stage in a process destined to culminate in the federal unification of the whole continent.
Political union in the framework of the Six would also be the only way of saving the European institutions themselves, whose degeneration currently looks almost unstoppable.Today,the Union’s institutions, when faced with the problemof theirown reform, are capable of producing nothing other than sterile compromises and empty rhetoric. But were a true political union to be conceived in a narrower setting, they would instead become the drive belts transmitting its political motion to the other members of the Union. They would, at once, gain renewed vigour and fresh credibility.
It is important that the politicians who are today beginning to develop an awareness of the nature of the historical choice facing Europe start to speak out unreservedly and with clarity, to express, in a single voice, a concrete design. They will undoubtedly encounter incomprehension and strong resistance – after all, decisive choices are never easy – but this is the only way forward. Hic Rhodus, hic salta. The time for compromises is over.