Germany and France plot road to closer union

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Germany and France are preparing a four-point plan for the next round of European integration, including proposals for a single European foreign policy and a call for more immigration and asylum powers to be handed over to Brussels.

It is an attempt to patch up the Paris-Bonn relationship, historically the driving force for European integration. But wide areas of disagreement persist, giving room for Britain to exploit the differences.

The initiative is to be unveiled next month in an attempt to revive the debate over how the European Union should tackle the next phase of reform. Given the failure of other member states to set a clear agenda, the Franco- German plan is likely to form a negotiating blueprint for next year's "Maastricht Two" inter-governmental conference on EU re-structuring.

The plan, agreed in outline this week, could set France and Germany back on a collision course with Britain, which had been given cause to believe that the drive towards integration was slowing down.

It can take some comfort from the fact that the initiative is not as federalist in its ambitions as Bonn would have liked. Germany is determined to ensure Europe moves towards greater political and monetary union on grounds that without a single political vision, Europe may not create sufficient stability for a single currency to work.

But French caution over certain German policy proposals forced Bonn to scale down its original demands. "It is a compromise. It goes further than the French would have wanted but not as far as we would have liked," said a German official.

The Franco-German proposals centre on foreign policy, immigration and border controls, institutional reform and EU democracy and openness. They will be finalised after the Franco-German summit on 7 December. On foreign- policy integration, the two countries want a new planning unit established within the Council of Ministers secretariat in Brussels.

France wants the EU to appoint a secretary-general for foreign policy but Germany has not so far agreed. The core of the agreed plan is for greater majority voting on foreign policy within the Council of Ministers. Under German proposals, majority voting would be extended, starting with "the most important" areas of EU foreign policy. However, France continues to resist this idea and negotiations are still under way to find a compromise formula.

Under the proposed new voting system, a single country which objected to the majority decision would not be able to block it but would not have to take part in implementation of the decision under what is termed "constructive abstention". The financing of the policy agreed by the majority would, however, come out of EU funds.

Germany also wants to give more decision-making power to the European Commission in areas of immigration and asylum where they believe better co-ordination between member states is vital. The Commission would draw up laws on visas, and asylum rights and be responsible for ensuring they were enforced. The European Court of Justice would rule on cases where EU law had not been properly applied. But again, France is more reluctant and a decision is still under discussion.