Germany wants faster progress towards a federalist Europe

Germany is pulling away from Britain and moving closer to France again as it seeks to build a federalist Europe, the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, signalled yesterday.

In a speech certain to provoke the ire of Eurosceptics in Britain, Mr Fischer was outlining his vision of a two-speed Europe, with an exclusive club of states bound by a common government at its core. Countries reluctant to proceed with the pace set by the group would find themselves in a second division, excluded from decisions.

Mr Fischer said the European Union's unwieldy structure and the crisis of the euro had thrown up a multitude of questions, to which there was one answer: "The transition from a union of states to full parliamentarisation... And that means nothing less than a European Parliament and a European government which really do exercise legislative and executive power within the Federation." Aware of the resonance of the "f-word" in the British context, Mr Fischer apologised to "our friends in the United Kingdom".

"I know that the term 'federation' irritates many Britons," he added. "But to date I have been unable to come up with another word. We do not wish to irritate anyone." Irate Eurosceptics will nevertheless seize on his statement as evidence of German ambition to abolish national sovereignty. Britain took a lead three years ago in opposing Franco-German ideas for a two-speed Europe, and now Germany clearly wants to go beyond that.

Mr Fischer spoke of a "centre of gravity" formed perhaps by the countries that have agreed to join monetary union. This group would form a common parliament and elect a president. Membership of this club would be open to all EU states, but they would have to fulfil entrance criteria.

He stressed he was merely expressing his "personal opinion", but his speech echoes efforts by his government to revive the Franco-German axis.

Realising that Britain continues to be hampered by its ambivalent attitude to monetary union, Berlin feels compelled to work more closely with Paris on the next stage of EU reforms. A set of joint proposals is expected to be tabled at the next EU summit.