Scary German plan would force EU back to basics: Debate has renewed old tensions at the heart of Europe, writes Sarah Lambert in Brussels

HOW could a harmless-sounding German discussion paper ignite such a furious row about the future of the European Union? When John Major rises to speak in the Netherlands today, he may become the first British Prime Minister to devote a whole speech to rebutting a series of ideas floated (with no official status) by a political party in another country.

The German Christian Democrat document, published last week, is indeed a scary thing: it is scary because it states, with unusual honesty and clarity, the philosophical and political dilemmas confronting the EU in the remainder of this century.

Put at its simplest, the EU faces a destructive collision between two of the ideas at the heart of the original Common Market treaty: that all democratic European nations should be encouraged to join the club; and that member states should move inexorably towards some form of ill-defined economic and political union.

In other words, the CDU paper tries to square the circle ignored by the Maastricht treaty: how can the EU at once be 'widened' to embrace the Nordic and former Warsaw Pact countries; and institutionally 'deepened' to prevent the extraordinarily ambitious, already unwieldy, superstructure collapsing under its own weight.

The German paper - reflections on European policy - may not be official government thinking but it represents the first intelligent, coherent and thorough-going analysis by a member state of the problems facing Europe as it prepares to welcome four new members and tackle a new range of problems thrown up by the end of the Cold War and a period of prolonged economic recession.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's party (not yet Kohl himself) has suggested a solution, which both preserves and moderates the federalist impulse in the Treaty of Rome: it proposes that five 'core' member states, Germany, France and the Benelux trio, should proceed at all speed to fuller economic and political union, including a single currency; other existing and future member states, Britain included, should move at slower speed, joining up to the core economic and political policies when they feel able to do so.

In a sense this is an act of nostalgia: it is a wish to return to the heady days of 1957 when the Six struck out on their own, confident that the churlish British and others would be persuaded to follow, as of course they did. Small wonder that the Italians are so wounded at being excluded from the advance party this time.

The German ideas are suspiciously similar to French proposals, first floated several weeks ago, for three concentric 'bands' of EU states. They are also misleadingly reminiscent of John Major's preferred Euro-future, 'a multi- speed, multi-faceted' EU (of which we will hear more today). The Major government believes the EU should allow its nations to move at different speeds, according to national priorities and prejudices, but it hates the idea of a Britain permanently at the margins. It wants to establish the principle that some pupils can be in the top class in some subjects and in the remedial class in others.

This is, essentially, also an act of nostalgia: a return to attitudes which prevented Britain joining the Common Market in the 1950s; a belief that, even now, the EU can be reshaped along the looser, less institutional lines, the kind of Super-Efta, which Britain would always have preferred. This is almost certainly unworkable. Could a country be the brand leader in defence policy, while at the same time opting out of the economic union that would fund it?

The European Union now has a political and economic clout that makes it impossible for it to operate merely as a glorified free-trade zone. With economic ability comes political responsibility, the argument runs. Maastricht, even with a British opt-out, wrote the goal of economic and monetary union into European politics. Political union is necessary to direct economic union, social cohesion - the attempt to iron out the grossest socio-economic differences - is the glue that sticks these two things together.

But the German ideas are probably equally unworkable. A return to a Europe dominated by its founding members is no longer possible: history has moved on.

The parameters for the debate have now been set; it is clear that the 1996 review of Maastricht cannot be a mere tinkering with the system, once favoured by Britain, but must embrace the need for wholesale reform.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific