Leading article: Britain's chance to be at the heart of a new Europe

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The expansion of the European Union is good for Europe and good for the applicant countries. If the Treaty of Rome was, symbolically, the real end of the Second World War then the opening of negotiations between the EU and Poland, the Czech Republic and other eastern countries will represent the culmination of the Versailles Conference at the end of the First World War, offering them the chance to join the western world and grow in peace and prosperity as full nations. One of the beauties and paradoxes of European union is that it is a means of realising nationhood: for Poland and others, joining Europe could be a way of peacefully realising national aspirations suppressed for so long by Soviet occupation.

The Agenda 2000 document expected from the European Commission today is barely even the first shot in what necessarily will be a lengthy campaign. The first tranche of applicants has to be approved at the summit in Luxemburg at the end of the year. After that, how long will it take to settle terms and revamp the governance of the EU? Yet already the process of admitting new members has forced the anti-expansionists to show their hand. For this is not just an exercise in assessing the openness of Polish markets or the liberalisation of Hungarian financial institutions, important though those are; it inevitably addresses the very nature of the EU and the constellation of interests within it.

That is why the bid by the Poles, Slovenes, Czechs, Hungarians, Estonians and (Greek) Cypriots is, in principle, so welcome. It forces us to examine the architecture of this organisation - the capacity of the Commission, the nature of voting in a ministerial council expanding from a membership of 15 to 21, the problem of language and, especially, the question of European democracy.

The Common Agricultural Policy was created in the 1950s, a set of trade- offs between manufacturing and agricultural interests in France and Germany. That it has survived the expansion of the community created by the Treaty of Rome in 1956 is a tribute to inertia, also to the weakness of the British bargaining position in the 1970s. That it has preserved a French landscape that delights foreign tourists and has improved the general temperament of our island neighbours by making many Irish farmers rich are incidental benefits - which do not at all excuse its system of subsidies. That the Americans, for all their claims to be holier than thou in market matters, also subsidise their farmers is neither here nor there. The CAP is an affront. There is no possibility that its benefits could be extended to Polish agriculture (to do so would wreck EU budgets for decades). Let the Poles in and the CAP be removed.

Chancellor Kohl, speaking for the forward Europeans, has argued that it is possible to have both integration and expansion - he sent a message the other day to the French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin encouraging him to "deepen European integration". But this won't wash. A union of 21 might work as a loose and rather baggy free trading area within which certain directives sought to establish reasonable equivalences in terms of work practices and the environment (and how long would it take to get to today's position with the 15, in a union of 21?) But a union of 21 integrated in the way Chancellor Kohl envisages is not within the realm of practical politics for at least the first three decades of the new century. For British consumers to have access to Estonian timber without tariffs and for British banks to set up shop in Tallinn sounds like a way of enhancing well-being on both sides. But for British and Estonian MEPs to go to Strasbourg and pretend they are part of a single political community, its legitimacy willed by voters in the respective countries - that day is necessarily a long way off.

The enthusiasm of the applicant countries is a recognition that they have no destiny other than to embed their democracies within an essentially "western" framework. But goodwill is no substitute for institutional re- engineering. One of the risks of this process of application and negotiation is that expectations are raised high. It may be a long time before, say, the Czechs are able to accept the directives affecting the environment. The height of the barriers to entry is a practical matter, but it is also bound up with the question of whether the EU is a fixed, juridical thing, or an entity in a constant state of negotiation and renegotiation. The creation of a common currency suggests the former. Can, then, the EU move forward as a plural association, with one group closely bound together, sharing the same money, while another group (including Britain?) jogs along outside?

In an ideal world all these questions would receive cut and dried answers before the next stage was broached - the Commission would set out a blueprint for institutional reform before negotiations with the aspirants began. But one of the virtues of the European Community/Union has been its empirical nature, the way it has grown like Topsy. Confronting the former Soviet satellites and Cyprus will be another occasion for the EU to refine and redefine itself in situ. But that will not happen without positive statesmanship from existing members. In present political circumstances that does not look likely to come from the French and the Germans, wedded as they are to the project of monetary union and what increasingly looks like an anachronistic vision of Europe's coming together. Not for the first time, an opportunity presents itself for the British to be at Europe's heart.