Night of compromise as integration train hits the buffers

Grandiose promises of two years ago collapsed in the small hours
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As weary officials were yesterday still patching notes of a late- night deal into coherent text, the Amsterdam Treaty was already being written of as a failure and a fiasco.

To those who had hoped for another great leap forward for European integration, the final results of the two-year treaty negotiations must have seemed paltry, to say the least. Questions as to whether the European Union was even fit for its next grand project of enlargement were being widely raised.

Grandiose promises made two years ago of a unified stance on rebuilding Europe's institutions, to make the union fit to accept up to 10 new members from Eastern and Central Europe, collapsed in the small hours of yesterday in a welter of bickering at Europe's "top table".

As it became clear that member states would not even succeed in limiting the number of commissioners or deciding how to distribute votes fairly between member states in preparation for expansion, Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, was seen stomping down the press corridor, grim faced and fuming.

By the end of the night Jean Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister, was not speaking to Wim Kok, his Dutch counterpart, whom he accused of "greedily" trying to snatch too many votes for the Netherlands. Lamerto Dini, the Italian foreign minister (who fell off his bike during the lunch- break) cruelly bated Tony Blair for blocking progress on justice co-operation. While the Spanish annoyed everyone by choosing the early hours of the morning to launch debate on the more obscure of Europe's obscure voting mechanisms - the so-called Ioannina compromise.

Had the struggle to secure economic and monetary union sapped the energy of member states to proceed towards political union? Only two years ago the conventional wisdom said that the two processes went hand in hand.

Tony Blair, who had come to Amsterdam to prove he could fight for "British interests", found he hardly had to enter the ring - other member states had already blocked many of the integrationist moves which Mr Blair was pledged to oppose. It was the Germans who cut a swath through the list of areas to be subject to qualified majority voting, so that Britain in the end gave away the British veto in fewer areas than it had offered in the talks.

Spain fought hardest for the rights of big member states to retain their voting clout at the expense of small states. Neutral countries and Denmark fought as hard as Britain to water down attempts to create a common defence policy.

And many other member states argued just as hard as Britain for "national interests". So has Europe at last reached the high watermark of integration?

It would be foolish to write off the Amsterdam Treaty too quickly. At the summit the traditional process of EU integration may have run into some sturdy buffers. But from now on, instead of trying to proceed onwards down one single track, the integration train may decouple, and split into different branches.

Despite the confusion and the disunity, the treaty produced at least one highly significant agreement, which could yet provide the mechanism for the EU to make sense of its differences: the principle of "flexible" decision-making.

The new treaty, for the first time, sets out the rules by which some countries might choose to share power in certain areas "flexibly", that is, at a different pace from other countries.

The policy makes sense at a time when the union appears to be discovering deep cultural differences. Hunger for integration waxes and wanes. Germany, for example, is clearly losing its appetite for old-style integration right now, while Britain appears a little more favourable than it used to be. So why not be "flexible" about integration and stop forcing the pace?

The dangers of proceeding down the new "flexible" tracks are many for the union, and have led some to fear eventual fragmentation.

Both the Labour Party and the Conservatives have long feared that "flexibility" could lead to a hard-core Europe, which would mean a Britain either isolated on the edges of the union, or drawn in against its will in order to keep up with the others. Yet, little noticed back in Britain, Mr Blair on Tuesday night conceded the British veto over flexible decision-making.

Admittedly, the Prime Minister fought hard to limit the areas to which it can be applied. And he secured agreement that the veto could be yielded in cases of "vital national interest". But history may yet come to the conclusion that, thanks, in part, to Tony Blair's new spirit of co-operation, the union at Amsterdam found a way to adapt to its many differences and continue integration in a more sensible, "flexible" way.