A multi-speed Europe with France and Germany at its core appeared possible last night, as Paris and Berlin vowed to press for closer integration despite the collapse of talks on the EU constitution.
A group of "core" countries is ready to sign a declaration supporting the constitutional text drawn up by the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, which failed to win approval at the acrimonious Brussels summit.
Four of the EU's six founder members - France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg - have lined up behind the declaration, and efforts are under way to bring the other two founders, Italy and the Netherlands, on board.
This group will be boosted by others, including Greece and EU newcomers Hungary. Diplomats are trying to entice the UK. Britain's support would probably be conditional on banking progress made in negotiations over Britain's "red lines" on keeping national vetoes.
The crisis over the weekend is giving fresh impetus to France and Germany's drive towards closer bilateral integration. One possibility is that the two countries could announce plans to combine or co-ordinate their diplomatic staffs, another that they would draw up plans for integration of judicial systems.
The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, spoke of a "two speed" Europe, while the French president, Jacques Chirac, talked of a "pioneer group". The Belgian premier, Guy Verhofstadt, said if the situation does not evolve in the next few weeks, it will be clear the founding members "will ask themselves how to push forward European integration".
The areas where co-operation could be boosted are limited. And, with EU leaders battling hard to overcome the divisions brought about by the Iraq crisis, such talk provoked a sharp response from the Spanish premier, Jose Maria Aznar, who said that he hoped that "no country will take measures to try to divide Europe".
The emerging pattern is likely to be more complex than a crude two-speed model. M Chirac said his vision was of closer co-operation among groups of nations which would be open for all EU countries to join, and which would operate within the EU's treaties.
Already these allow for some nations to integrate more closely. For example, 12 of the 15 EU countries have adopted the euro, and Britain and Ireland have opted out of the Schengen passport-free travel zone. While the UK is outside these initiatives, it is keen to participate in a plan for defence co-operation. One of the few positive elements of the weekend summit was an agreement between the UK, France and Germany on defence, suggesting an enlarged EU will encompass a number of sub-groups.
Nations such as France and Germany will be inside all areas of co-operations - the core of all cores. More sceptical nations such as Britain would take part in some and opt out of other areas. Such a solution would avoid the creation of new structures. It would also blur divisions between nations with first and second class status.
Even the founding members of the EU are anxious to avoid such clear demarcations. As he wound up the summit, Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy (which holds the EU presidency until the end of the year), said he is "not a supporter of an initiative of the six founding nations". Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg premier, also said he could not accept the creation of an EU hard core in the short term. "Two-speed Europe could only come as a result of persistent disagreements," he said.Reuse content