DUBLIN SUMMIT: Europe's hard core takes solid form

John Lichfield, Chief Foreign Writer, argues that this may be a meeting that marks a historic change in the European Union
In Dublin's fair city...or the rocky road to Dublin?

European Union leaders assembling in Dublin today for a two-day summit have a splendid tradition to maintain. Love it, or hate it, much of the recent history of the EU has been shaped by summits in Dublin.

It was at Dublin in 1979 that Margaret Thatcher refused "half a loaf" and set the scene for the row with other European governments over "my money" which dominated the early 1980s. It was at Dublin in 1984 that commitments were given - by Mrs Thatcher, among others - that led to the 1992 Single Market campaign and the Single European Act, which consumed Euro-politics for five years. The Dublin summit of 1990 was dominated by the Franco-German ideas for monetary and political union, which led directly to the Maastricht Treaty, EMU and a thousand Euro-sceptic tirades.

And Dublin, December 1996? In one sense, this is just a wait-and-see summit. Wait and see who wins the British election next year. Wait and see what emerges from the negotiations on EU treaty reform which will not end before next summer, at the earliest. Wait and see which countries qualify and sign up for economic and monetary union at the start of the following year (when the playful sense of humour of EU timetablers sends the early 1998 summit to London).

But Dublin 1996, today and tomorrow, may prove to be just as memorable as its predecessors.

It may well be the occasion when the shadowy concept of a "core Europe" - an inner group of states, ready to push ahead of the others - will be given flesh and bone. It may enshrine the year 2001 as the new 1992: the target date for the EU to deliver its 40-year-old promise of complete freedom of movement for its people (not just their goods and services) within a common border. And since the British, in the shape of Messrs Major and Rifkind, are likely to sit (metaphorically) sulking in the corner while both these ideas are agreed in principle, Dublin could mark the beginning of a process of marginalisation of the UK which may, or may not, be interrupted by the result of the general election.

EU finance ministers were meeting in Dublin yesterday to try to resolve the differences between Paris and Bonn over who will run economic policy in the "euro zone" after the single currency - the euro - becomes a reality in 1999. This is not just a technical dispute. It reaches to the heart of the way Germany and France have run their economies and the way the euro will be managed. Germany wants the management of the currency left mostly to the technocrats of the new European central bank in Frankfurt. France wants the bank to be shadowed by a political organisation - a stability council - which would set many of the parameters for management of the euro and take the final, political decisions on when to punish laggard member states.

If Britain was likely to join EMU, we would surely back the French view that fundamental, economic decisions should be made by politicians. As it is, the Major government is deeply suspicious of the "stability council", because it fears that it will, in practice, become the mission control for a "core Europe": a group of EU states which will pre-digest many aspects of EU and economic policy among themselves, pushing Britain and others to the margins.

Originally the Dublin summit was also supposed to be an important staging- post in the process of EU institutional reform - the inter-governmental conference - launched earlier this year. By general agreement, serious discussion of many of the most bitterly contested issues, particularly the national veto and the voting power of larger countries, will be delayed until after the UK election. But the French and Germans are seeking preliminary discussion of another of the potential building blocks of "core Europe": the idea that the treaty should be changed to allow groups of like-minded countries to go ahead with new, common European policies, even if another member state objects. Britain insists any individual state should be able to block a new policy, even one it does not have to to take part in. France and Germany say unwilling states should be able to stand aside but not block the others.

What kind of new policies? The most obvious candidate would be the proposals to be tabled by the Irish government today for rapid progress in the demolition of internal EU barriers to the movement of individuals. Dublin suggests this should be completed by 2001, making it just as easy to travel, or move home, from, say, Antwerp to Naples, as within one country. To make this possible, new common policies, under formal EU law, are suggested for immigration, asylum-seekers, visas, and the fight against organised crime, drugs and terrorism.

Britain begs to differ, arguing that control of national borders is one of the fundamental prerogatives, and badges of office, of a sovereign state. Dublin is an awkward place for Her Majesty's Government to have to make this argument. Why has sovereign Britain never felt the need for a systematically policed border with Ireland?

Comments