John Lichfield: Europe needs sceptics

When France and Germany saw the EU as themselves writ large, they sought closer union. But as its size increased, the Federalist countries backed off. Is the 'British' idea of a looser alliance of states now Europe's future?

Listen, for a moment, to the opinions (somewhat simplified and paraphrased) of a Veteran European Statesman. "The European Union is dead but long live Europe. There will never be another EU treaty. The 'reform' agreement signed in Lisbon three years ago was the high water mark of the old federal dream."

This (he goes on) is an opportunity, not a failure. "If we can bury the federal myth, we can create a leaner, meaner European project, driven largely by nation states and not by Brussels. We can create a much stronger, more practical European power – a 'puissance Europe' to preserve the European Way of Life from the assaults of a cheerless 21st century."

Who is talking? The phrase "puissance Europe" is the giveaway. The Veteran European Statesman (VES) is not British, even though his ideas closely resemble those of successive British governments for more than half a century (Edward Heath's administration in 1970-4 excepted). There is little in what our VES says that could not be endorsed by a moderate Euro-critic like William Hague or all but the most mouth-dribbling of xenophobes amongst Conservative eurosceptics.

The VES is French: Hubert Védrine, 63, French foreign minister from 1997-2002 and secretary-general (ie, chief aide) to the very European presidency of François Mitterrand from 1991 to 1995.

Védrine has never, admittedly, been a Eurofanatic. He has always had nationalist and sovereigntist tendencies (which, unlike some other French politicians, he has openly confessed).

All the same his views, expressed in the pages of the newspaper Libération and in person at the recent joint Libération-Independent forum in Lyon, are unusually stark and frank. Védrine is saying things which no mainstream French politician would have dared to say a few years ago. I paraphrase lightly once again: "By sloughing off the dead skin of the failed federal ideal, we can destroy euroscepticism and europessimism at source by accepting their main arguments. Europe should no longer seek to transcend national identities, and national interests. It should seek to serve them."

Védrine is not just expressing his own opinions but pointing to what he sees as a new political reality in Europe. And a new realism. The EU, he says, is at a crossroads. There is now an opportunity for what might loosely be called the "British" view of Europe – an aversion to treaties and legally binding rules; a preference for general aims and government-to-government deals; a core devotion to the nation state – to triumph. Or at least to take over.

In truth, this is not entirely new. Europe is not so much at a crossroads as at a giant roundabout from which it cannot decide which exit to take. The debate goes around and around.

Continental governments have been sliding away from federal aims for a decade or more without reaching any coherent conclusions about what the "Europe" of the future should be.

The European debate (if any) in the UK carries on regardless. There remains a default British conviction, encouraged by a broadly eurosceptic press, that the EU is a stealthy conspiracy (backed by Paris and Berlin) to impose federal power from Brussels and abolish the British way of life, from red double-decker buses to soggy chips and warm beer.

But consider.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's retaliatory Brussels bashing over his anti-Roma campaign was, in part, just Sarko being Sarko. "It is an insult," he raged. "It is a humiliation. It is an outrage. We don't talk this way between European partners." Like a 10-year-old boy, if criticised he shouts and stamps his feet. But the French president's willingness – or eagerness – to attack the Commission reflects a new Euro-wariness in France, amongst ordinary people but also within the French governing elite.

The enlargement of the EU; the weakening of the French alliance with Germany; the alleged ultra-market ideology of the European Commission mean that France no longer sees Brussels as a kind of cue-extension of its own interests and power.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was not brought up in the Common Market, EEC or EU but in the DDR. She has a pragmatic, whatever-works, view of Europe. Unlike Chancellor Helmut Kohl, she would never have abolished the Deutschmark to create the Euro to make an essentially political statement (and to please the French).

She insisted that the EU emergency action to help Greece and others earlier this year must be essentially intergovernmental, not run by Brussels. She opposes any political dimension to the management of the Euro and Euroland which would constrain the national – and some say selfish – policies of Germany.

Under the foolish Silvio Berlusconi, the once-federally-committed Italy has no coherent view of Europe. The previously-federalist Dutch have rediscovered nationalism and veered towards the populist right. Belgium remains keen on a federal Europe but Belgium scarcely exists. Luxembourg, as President Sarkozy rudely pointed out, is rather small.

The Iberians have rarely contributed much to the European debate. The newer countries in eastern Europe joined the EU "because it was there". Europe's important role in acting as a referee for their stumbling race to democracy and prosperity is often forgotten (especially in eastern Europe). In any event, few voices in the ex-Communist bloc states clamour for a more federal Europe or a more powerful Brussels.

And Britain? The Conservative party manifesto at the last election spoke of reducing the EU to an "association of its member states": in other words to an intergovernmental club, with no legally binding treaties or rules. The Coalition Agreement with the Lib Dems, significantly, said no such thing.

Even the newly Eurosceptic French and Germans – even Mr Védrine – are talking about looser intergovernmental approaches to new European policies (such as foreign and defence or industrial policy or joint research projects). They do not envisage (yet) dismantling the binding treaty rules which underpin the single European market. Or the Euro. Or the EU budget. Or the Common Agricultural Policy.

All the same, and especially in alliance with the Lib Dems, there seems little for David Cameron to be scared of in a Merkel-Sarkozy-Berlusconi Europe. And there is little reason for the Europeans, in their present mood, to be scared of David Cameron. He may even, if Védrine is right, have an opportunity to steer Europe towards the kind of pragmatic, intergovernmental, co-operative, non-sovereignty-threatening model that Britain wanted from the beginning.

But is Védrine right? Could such a Europe survive or thrive? Would such a Europe be more effective, and ultimately more powerful, because it would attract the support, rather than the suspicion, of its peoples?

Most of what works well in the EU (so well that we usually don't notice it) is enforced by supra-national treaty laws: the large single market, which makes European industry attractive to foreign investors; the open competition, which has given us cheap European air fares. Most of what works badly in Europe – ie, European foreign policy, before or after Lady Ashton – is intergovernmental, unbinding and unenforceable.

Almost unnoticed last month, a new group was formed, inside and outside, the European Parliament to fight the spreading "intergovernmental" heresy and defend the old federalist, European religion. The group is named after Altiero Spinelli, the Italian political theorist who is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the EEC-EC-EU supranational, sovereignty-ceding (or pooling) approach to Europe.

Members include the former Commission president, Jacques Delors; the Franco-German student rebel turned eloquent Green politician, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and the former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt. Their manifesto declares:

"In a time of interdependence and a globalised world, clinging to national sovereignties and intergovernmentalism is not only warfare against the European spirit; it is but an addiction to political impotence."

Cohn-Bendit is one of the few politicians in Europe able to argue, coherently and amusingly, the case for what he calls a "post-national" Europe. I rang and asked him what he made of the Védrine argument that a Strong Europe, a "puissance Europe", could only be achieved by deals between governments and not by the EU supranational institutions.

"But this is nonsense," he says. "Manifest nonsense. If you look at where the failures are in Europe today – on financial regulation, for instance, or on climate change – they are precisely in the inability of the governments (meeting in the Council of Ministers) to agree anything serious between themselves. Left to the governments, everything would be tokenist, lowest common denominator, ineffective. And yet everybody, or almost everybody, agrees that these are important issues that must be tackled at European level."

Although far from perfect, he says, the entire history of the EU showed that lasting progess – from the free market to Europe-wide environmental standards – could only be achieved through legally-enforceable policies framed and decided by the three central EU institutions, the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the directly-elected European Parliament.

Cohn-Bendit admits, however, that there has been a radical mood shift in European capitals. "This is the real problem in Europe today," he says. "France used to be keen on a powerful Europe when it thought that Europe would become a kind of Greater France. Germany was keen on a powerful Europe when it assumed that Europe would be a kind of Greater Germany. Now they see that, in the enlarged Europe, and in the post-Lisbon treaty EU with a greater role for the European Parliament, life is much more complex. Suddenly, they are no longer such keen Europeans."

In rubbishing Védrine, Cohn-Bendit accepts one of his principal arguments. There is a crisis of faith in the EU.

The founding fathers of the EU (née EEC) believed that European facts imposed from above – European institutions, a Europe-wide trading market, free movement of people and capital – would eventually generate a sense of European political identity. It would eventually be possible ("ever-closer union") to have a Europe-wide democracy and some form of Europe-wide government.

Now, it seems, the mechanism which was wound up and set working in the 1950s has run down. Despite the increased powers granted by the Lisbon treaty to Euro MPs, the EU has bumped against a glass ceiling. Or a European catch-22.

Further power for the EU would demand more direct democracy. More direct democracy will never willingly be ceded by national politicians and bureaucracies because it confers legitimacy and power. Without legitimacy, the EU will remain remote and disliked. While the EU is remote and disliked, there will be little popular demand for direct democracy.

Member governments (even the most supposedly pro-European ones) have cherished this conundrum for years (even in the supposedly Great Years of European advance). With 27 member states (and rising) and the shifting, less-communautaire attitudes of Germany, France and Italy, the glass ceiling barring the way to a more federal future is never likely to be shattered.

Védrine is depressing but right. Cohn-Bendit is inspiring but wrong. The ever-closer union promised by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 is likely to become, de facto, "never-closer union". Member states are already veering towards intergovernmental, non-binding ways of making new European policies (on, say, defence).

But that does not mean we should abolish the EU institutions or allow them to fall apart. We would end up facing the same pan-European problems – trade, immigration, environment – with no core framework for discussion or decision.

Védrine talks of rehabilitating "the nation" without reviving the destructive forces of "nationalism". But all across Europe – from Italy, to Belgium, to Hungary, even to stolid Sweden and to Sarkozy's France – some of the uglier forces of "nationalism" are already on the march. Is this a safe moment to let the Europe-wide institutions fall into disrepair?

Védrine does not explain how his Brave New Europe can be bolted on to the existing, half-built supranational one. Whatever the British may pretend, the European free market would not exist for a day without EU laws and institutions.

Nor does Védrine answer Cohn-Bendit's unanswerable point. Intergovernmental agreements are, de facto, fragile and temporary because governments are fragile and temporary. How would Védrine make his new defence, foreign, industrial and research policies anything more than a series of loose, political poker games, changing as governments change?

Something close to what Védrine describes may well happen to the EU in the next decade. The change could come as an incoherent muddle (the most common state of affairs in the EU). Or the change could be coherent and willed, transparent and democratic: a formal acceptance that a United States of Europe is an impossible, and maybe destructive, dream, but that the core, supranational decision-making bodies of the EU are just as necessary as ever.

That would mean another EU treaty. And yet Védrine tells us that there is no stomach in the EU for more treaties ...

Is there a statesman, or woman, in the house?

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