Europe: how the East was lost

Britain is `seriously getting on our nerves', the Germans are saying. The consequences could be far more grievous than a marginalised UK, argues John Lichfield. Without us, reform will be impossible and continenta l chaos could ensue
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The Independent Online
There is a problem with being pro-European in the viciously anti- European climate now being whipped up in Britain. One feels obliged always to defend the European Union.

It is difficult to voice misgivings about the direction of EU policy without seeming to join in the feeding-frenzy which passes for analysis in some of our serious journals - to quote just one example, the Sunday Times believes that the Government's wait-and-see policy on the single currency is morally equivalent to the appeasement of Hitler.

Despite the modest progress made at the Dublin summit this weekend there are many good, pro-European reasons to be concerned about the EU's hazardous approach-run to the 21st century. There are at least three causes for pro-European anxiety at present. Taken together, they form an explosive cocktail.

First, patience with Britain on the Continent is wearing thin. A senior German official said recently: "You're now seriously getting on our nerves." Sure, everyone is waiting for a Blair government. But, talking to senior officials from other EU countries, you have a sense that fellow Europeans are already prepared to be impatient with Tony Blair. There is a desire for a new start, even a return to the show-me pragmatism which used to characterise British policy before it was buried by dogmatism.

But, 23 years after we joined, there will be little sympathy for a new strain of centre-left British obstructionism. With a new Conservative government, certainly, but even with a Labour government, it is possible to construct a series of plausible time-lines for the next five to 15 years which end with Britain departing from the EU, or becoming so marginalised that it would amount to the same thing.

Second, there is a danger that economic and monetary union (EMU) will create more barriers within Europe than it will dissolve. German concessions to France at the weekend, relaxing somewhat the disciplines for management of the single currency, make it more likely, not less, that the countries with weaker economies like Italy, and maybe Spain and Portugal, will be excluded. Germany will be in no mood to make further concessions.

The British government is right to warn that EMU could create a semi- permanent division within the EU. If we had not cast ourselves as permanent, self-interested Jeremiahs, our warnings might be taken more seriously. Much has been written about the twin domestic problems facing France, Germany and the other likely members of the single currency starting line- up. They have just over 12 months to a) convince their doubting publics that the Euro is, despite those ugly notes, not funny money; b) squeeze their public spending to meet the targets for EMU membership.

These problems are real enough but can and probably will be finessed by the French and Germans and at least six others. The third and perhaps most real danger is that the effort of such a finesse - and the quarrels with the excluded nations - will absorb almost all available political oxygen in Europe up to the turn of the century. This is already starting to happen.

The important agenda for the streamlining of EU institutions is already being curtailed. Looming, inescapable problems such as the further reform of the EU farm policy and budget have not even been been broached. The greatest risk - apart from the alienation of Italy and Iberia and further alienation of Britain - is a possibly fatal delay in the enlargement of the EU to the east.

Several EU national politicians have glibly asserted that the first of the former-Communist candidate countries will be able to join by the year 2000. This is manifest nonsense. With the delay in the negotiations on reform of EU decision-making and institutions (partly Britain's fault, but not wholly), negotiations on enlargement to the east cannot now begin until 1998 at the earliest. The unofficial target date for a first wave of Central and Eastern European entries - Poland? Hungary? the Czech Republic? Slovenia? - is now 2003. But officials in the European Commission and the applicant governments concede that this is also hopelessly unrealistic. The year 2010 is being bandied around. This may be dangerously late. Can the Eastern European candidates hang on for that long?

Such expansion to the east - which received little more than lip service at the Dublin summit - is crucial. This enlargement - the fifth - is likely to be the most difficult to date (and the EU has, arguably, never recovered from the first, the British one). Quite apart from the low GNP per head of even the best-off candidate countries, they have lived for most of the past 50 years in a parallel and isolated political and economic universe. The efforts they need to make to bring their legal, political, economic and social attitudes and structures broadly in line with those of Western European countries is enormous. It is equivalent, in medical terms, to sowing back a severed arm: all the minute political and economic capillaries and tendons, disconnected or withered by four decades and more of totalitarianism and state planning, have to be rebuilt and then re-connected.

The image of the severed arm is maybe fanciful but it has a kind of moral truth to it. If you visit Poland or Hungary or the Czech Republic, despite the political and economic differences inherited from the Cold War, you are clearly as much in Europe - socially, culturally, architecturally - as if you were in Belgium or Spain. Healing the gash across the Continent is not just an option for the EU. If it lives up to its own self-stated aims - the promotion of prosperity and peace in Europe and the greater unity of European peoples - it has an obligation to absorb as many Central and Eastern European countries as are willing and able to meet the terms and rules of membership.

The candidate countries are already making great efforts. The need to bring their laws, institutions and economies closer to the EU status quo is exerting a beneficial effect. The EU provides a structure of rules and targets and standards for the candidate countries to work towards: in terms of commercial law, manufacturing standards, environmental safeguards, transport infrastructure, democratic institutions. The EU also offers a clear economic and political prize. Without the EU, there would be the same desire on their part to re-engage with the West, but no clear pattern of how to do so.

But the would-be members cannot be expected to stay the course without a clear commitment from EU countries to open negotiations on membership in the near future and complete them by a reasonable date. If a week is a long time in politics, then 13 years is as a good as a century.

A sense of forward movement must be preserved to help the politicians of the Eastern countries to continue to sell the short-term pain of economic adjustment to their electorates. In the longer term, even the medium term, there are huge potential benefits for the whole of Europe - East and West - in increasing the prosperity of the candidate countries and absorbing them in the single market.

But there is no inevitability that the process will continue, just because it has begun. The risk is not a relapse into state planning. It is something far more threatening. The rise of extreme, xenophobic national forces in some of the former Warsaw Pact countries is sufficient warning to the rest of us that the historic task of bringing them fully into the European mainstream will be neglected at our peril.

The problems this throws up are linked, like accumulator bets. British obstructionism is delaying the intergovernmental talks on EU reform. But those talks must be completed before serious enlargement negotiations can begin. Yet the domestic pain imposed on France and Germany to create EMU makes it harder for them to contemplate the kind of concessions needed to put Eastern enlargement on a fast track.

And so it goes on. The fiscal squeeze forced on Germany by the dash into EMU will make it extremely awkward for a future German government to agree even modest extra funding of the EU budget to admit three or four relatively poor countries. Germany is demanding that its large net contribution to the Brussels budget be cut in future years. The EMU birth pains threatened in France (equivalent to a belated and concentrated dose of Thatcherism) will make it all the harder for France to risk rural - on top of urban and suburban - unrest, by agreeing to another radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Without reform of the CAP, enlargement is a practical and financial non-starter. And so the circle continues.

Britain's voice and influence might have been crucial at this time. They may yet be so, if a Blair government can learn - and win respect - rapidly. Genuine British pragmatism is an important ingredient in the formula for success in the EU (look at the 1992 single market programme and CAP reform, largely British-driven in their early stages). Its absence in recent years has been a tragedy for Europe.

British carping and negativism has been felt all the more bitterly because the rest of the EU is not fully confident (despite the bullish exterior) about where it is going. That German quote - "You're now seriously getting on our nerves" - is rooted in Continental anxieties, as much as British absurdities. Hence the possibility that a Blair government might enjoy only a brief European honeymoon. A healthy dose of constructive pragmatism might yet help to sort out some of the EU conflicts and contradictions ahead. The danger is that, after all the dogmatism and negativism of the Major years, there may be little patience for any British criticism, however constructive.

The EU as it exists now will disappear over the next 15 years. The centralised, lock-step, federal state envisioned by the Euro-sceptics is a fantasy. But the scale of the political building programme laid down by EU governments is huge: a single currency; institutional reform; CAP reform; budget reform; enlargement.

The forthcoming general election will solve nothing. Both leading parties may successfully avoid Europe as the all-pervasive issue during campaigning. But, whether or not we join EMU, Europe will probably be the make-or-break issue at the UK election after the next - just after the turn of the century (earlier if Blair's majority is slender).

By the year 2010, the map of Europe will have changed radically, for good or ill. Here are three of many possible scenarios, viewed from a shamelessly, but critically, pro-European viewpoint.

l An optimistic scenario: Britain in EMU and at the heart of Europe again. EMU functioning well after painful beginnings. The EU enlarged to 19 or 20 countries. What are the chances of all this happening as things stand at the moment? Very poor.

l A pessimistic scenario: Britain marginalised or outside altogether. EMU working reasonably well for nine or ten other countries. The EU enlarged into central Europe. The chances: all too likely.

l A very pessimistic scenario: Britain out or marginalised; a small directoire of EMU states progressively alienating others, including Italy, Spain and Sweden. Enlargement botched or abandoned. The chances: not inevitable, but far greater than they should be for pro-European comfort.