Europe ducks the tough questions

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SARAH HELM

Brussels

Mounting confusion on how Europe should plan its future, and doubts about giving more power to Brussels, will be highlighted this week in the report of a high-level study group charged with setting the agenda for reform.

Britain will take comfort from the group's report, which offers little provocation to Conservative Euro-sceptics, making no firm proposals which would immediately threaten the British veto or reduce the powers of national parliaments. While exploring ideas for radical change, the report acknowledges the reservations of Britain, as well as other countries, and makes no attempt to recommend the way forward.

While John Major heaves a sigh of relief, however, the report will come as a major disappointment to those who hoped it would trigger serious debate at last about fundamental reform. ``It is tortuous and confused. It ducks all the major issues and takes us no further forward,'' said a senior official who scrutinised the final draft at the weekend. The so-called "reflection group" of EU ministers, established to shape an agenda for next year's inter-governmental conference, started its work at Messina in June with ambitious plans to build a more workable and effective form of European government. The group was charged with preparing outline plans for the enlargement of the union from 15 to up to 30 member states. The group's report, to be presented formally tomorrow, was to have provided crucial guidance for heads of state, who are due to finalise plans for the IGC when they meet in Madrid in December. Instead, the report may simply fuel confusion.

After nine meetings, involving 40 hours of discussion, the group appears to have been overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of its task, and cowed by the the wave of scepticism about European integration which has spread beyond Britain to several other member states in recent months. The Franco- German alliance, which traditionally drives forward Europe's reforming engine, has been markedly silent in recent months. Jacques Chirac, the French President, has failed to take any bold lead on Europe's future. In Germany doubts have mounted steadily over whether the mark should be replaced by a weaker European single currency, and Bonn no longer seems to be insisting so forcefully that monetary union must go hand in hand with radical new steps towards political union. And the European Commission has abandoned the zeal for which it became famous under Jacques Delors, playing a cautious role under Jacques Santer.

The report, drawn up by Carlos Westendorp, the group's Spanish chairman, makes little attempt to open new vision. It ducks decisions on all the major reform questions. The key question of how to extend qualified majority voting in order to speed up decision-making is addressed, and a number of options set out. However, no conclusions are reached and Britain's objection to any extension of majority voting is carefully acknowledged. Throughout meetings, David Davis, the Foreign Office minister representing Britain, has insisted that the report should not prejudice next year's negotiations, and he seems to have achieved his aim.

The report hedges its bets on how to improve the EU's decision-making in foreign and defence policy, where failures of EU policy in former Yugoslavia are being highlighted today by the apparent progress of the new US initiative. The suggestion that the EU should appoint a heavyweight to represent it on foreign policy questions, so as to present a more consistent front, is addressed.

Comments