The watering down of the European Union into a free-trade area is a process that is at risk of becoming irreversible. Indeed, the profound heterogeneity of the EU member states, their diverging national interests, their widely differing visions regarding the objectives of the European process, and their different conceptions of the relationship that Europe should be seeking to establish with the United States, are all pushing it firmly in this direction. Many states support and favour this trend. Others, either because of their greater interdependence (resulting from their having been part of the process of European unification for longer), or because they recognise their incapacity, by themselves, to rise to the challenges of the new century and are thus more inclined towards the creation of closer unity, still refuse to accept this reversal of the process. These states have thus raised, once again, the idea of promoting, within the Union, the creation of a framework within which to restart the process of European unification through the initiative of just a few states. For some countries, France and Belgium first and foremost, it is not a question of whether it is necessary to create such a vanguard at the heart of the European Union, but rather of how, when, and with whom this should be done.
The whole history of European integration (from the ECSC to the creation of the euro) has been characterised by the fact that, in the decisive stages of the process, it has always taken a small group of states to carry the project forward, pulling the others in its wake. But the current situation places new factors before those states that are looking for a way to restart the process of European unification: on the one hand, we have reached such deep levels of interdependence and pooled such crucial competences that it has become inconceivable that any further part of the states’ decision-making capacity can be taken away from them without also confronting the decisive problem of the effective transfer of sovereignty from the states to Europe. On the other, the pressures of the increasingly complex challenges thrown up by an international scenario characterised by the rapid rise of the Asian powers leave precious little time to devote to taking the concrete steps needed to strengthen the capacity of the Europeans, together, to face up to this new situation. On the one hand, therefore, we have the clear need to prepare for this most difficult step: the creation of an effective European power, equipped with its own resources, that will replace the states in the areas in which it will have exclusive competence and co-operate with them in the areas of shared competence (this constituting the only real possibility of further advancing the process of integration); and on the other, the urgency of this initiative.
Various proposals have been advanced for the creation of a “multi-speed Europe”, but not all are feasible and not all would help to strengthen the unity of Europe. They include the introduction of enhanced cooperation in various areas and among different groups of states, the idea being that this would lead to the creation of a vanguard of states which, ultimately, would find themselves cooperating in all areas. Or they concern the possibility (raised by France’s interior minister Sarkozy, for example) that the Union’s six biggest countries (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland, Spain and Italy), which together make up 75% of its population, should become the driving force of the new Europe, pushing on with integration in certain areas, with or without the agreement of the other members. Others (President Chirac and, in particular, Belgian premier, Verhofstadt) insist that it should be the countries in the Eurozone, possibly together with those on the point of entering it, that should pursue deeper integration, or that a group of states inspired by the spirit of Europe’s founding fathers and willing to adhere to clear rules, more binding than those governing enhanced cooperation, should form a “small house within the greater one” (this is the view of France’s foreign minister, Douste-Blazy). Some (the President of Italy, Ciampi, and Karl Lamers) instead feel that the initiative should begin with Europe’s six founder members, together with any other countries that should wish to be part of the endeavour.
What all these proposals have in common is the view that the process must necessarily revolve around France and Germany. In addition, they all agree that the key areas in which deeper integration is indispensable are those of foreign and security policy (including defence and the fight against terrorism), taxation and the protection of Europe’s social system. All these proposals, with the exception of the one for a group made up of Europe’s six biggest countries, envisage the formation of an open vanguard, i.e., one that is ready to embrace all those states that share its ends and are willing to accept its rules. But each of these solutions sets out different paths and different institutional objectives, whereas it is, in fact, on the latter that the vanguard initiative’s chances of success depend.
The weakest proposal is, without doubt, that of creating a group of countries – a sort of big six – that would be capable (primarily on the basis of the defence of their own national interests) of press-ganging the Union into making decisions. This proposal, effectively, is for the birth of a directoire. However, this path is doomed to failure, not only because it would trigger off explosive reactions, but also because it includes the UK, a country that, historically and politically, is against any deepening of integration that threatens to erode its sovereignty. The stances of the British government on questions of foreign and security, monetary and social policy are radically different from those of the continental European governments, and this effectively rules out the possibility that this group of states might find (and in the long term retain) common ground. In particular, it can be noted that in the defence sector, in which the UK strives to impose its presence and affirm its leadership – this is also the sector in which the UK is most widely held to be an essential partner – , the British government continually works to dampen the ambitions of continental Europe and to keep European security within the ambit of weak cooperation among the states, at the service of NATO.
Basically, if the aim is to create a European entity that is capable of conducting an effective foreign policy, that counts on the world stage, and that is capable of defending – and of diffusing – its own social, political and cultural models, then cooperation among nation-states is clearly not enough. Precisely because the areas we are talking about are ones intimately bound up with a nation’s sovereignty, it is quite impossible to imagine that integration within them can be deepened without creating a common state, without each country relinquishing, in these areas, its power to decide in the last instance. It thus becomes crucial to establish the framework within which an initiative for the creation of a European federal power is conceivable.
While it is indeed indisputable that the vanguard or pioneering group must remain open to all those states that may wish to be part of it, it is equally clear that the political will to upset the status quo and begin the process of creating a federal state can, reasonably, be expected to emerge only in the countries in which there have evolved the historical and political conditions in which such a leap forward can be considered feasible. One might begin by considering the (historical and political) fact that the six states that began the process of European integration at the start of the 1950s are the only ones that have espoused the idea that the ultimate outcome of the process should be a federation. Furthermore, it is in these countries that, for over half a century, the political class and public opinion have shaped their mode of governing, acting and thinking to a federal evolution of the process of European integration, an evolution regarded, until just a few years ago, as unstoppable and inevitable. From this perspective, the Eurozone can be seen more as an economic community than as a community of destiny. Because of this, and as such, it is both too heterogeneous and too broad to be able to promote, from the outset, the federal leap forward. It is, on the other hand, reasonable to expect that, once the question of the federation is on the table, the states that have adopted the single currency will be the first to consider joining it.
The fact remains that the main and most urgent priority must be to separate the decision-making stage and the process of preparing for the birth of the new European state from the process of actually joining it and becoming part of its established life. Unless we make this clear distinction, not only does it become impossible to identify the countries that might restart the process of Europe’s political unification, but also we run the risk of pursuing a design – that of cooperation (however close or loose) among an unspecified group of countries – destined only to favour the Union’s disintegration. When we do make this distinction, on the other hand, it emerges quite clearly that the onus falls mainly on France and Germany, but also on the other members of the Six that will wish to be part of this initiative. It is up to the governments, the politicians and the active forces in society within these countries to turn the inevitable and increasingly invoked “multi-speed Europe” into a solid reality, capable of generating effective responses to the needs of the citizens and of making its influence felt on the international stage.