Leading article: Now to design a Europe for the people

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The Independent Online
Two years ago, at a European conference in Messina held to launch debate on re-writing the Maastricht treaty, a rogue questioner caught Jacques Santer by surprise. "When is the president of the European Commission going to get me a job?" shouted a voice from the back of the room. Mr Santer, mid-way through his grand exposition on how the new inter-governmental conference would build a "new Europe", gave a fumbling response: something about answering the needs of the "citizens". The intruder, an out-of-work Sicilian truck driver, was rudely ejected on to the street, where he was later seen demanding a "Europe for jobs".

The Messina intrusion should have served as an early warning sign that Europe's citizens were tiring of interminable debates among their leaders which seemed to ignore their needs. But, since Messina (where the original Treaty of Rome was devised more than 40 years ago), such debate has intensified: the latest IGC, opening properly in Amsterdam today, has churned out ever more incomprehensible texts and protocols. Outside it, the workers' cries of protest will reach a new crescendo. Dutch protestors are already daubing summit posters in red paint. An "alternative summit" is now being planned. This time, will the heads of state and government be listening to their peoples?

Designing Europe was once so much easier for its leading statesmen. But that was when continental leaders were largely united in their long-term goal of a federal Europe. Federalism may not always have been stated as the aim, but it was always the "end-station" implicit in the founding treaties. And the driving motivation for deepening ties was also clear: to avoid further wars. There was little need to debate these aims in public, because the consent of the people in most member states was largely taken as read. Britons apart, most Europeans did not question the need for integration, which seemed to make sense in principle, and did not at first impinge directly on their lives.

All of this was before Maastricht. During the 1991 Maastricht negotiations the politicians drew up a huge new integrationist agenda, which included treaty plans for a single currency. The final text was a monster, outlining procedures of such complexity that ordinary people recoiled in dismay. The Danes baulked at the treaty in their referendum. The French nearly did the same, and all over the continent opinion polls showed plummeting support for "Europe" - whatever "Europe" was deemed to be. The malaise was exacerbated as the process of harmonisation was felt by ordinary people for the first time - particularly as the single market rules began to bite. Whether it was German beer or French chocolate, people rejected harmonisation in favour of their national tastes. Politicians who were unaccustomed to challenge were being asked: What is it all for? The Brussels technocracy found itself increasingly reviled. Maastricht austerity measures are now being imposed just as Europe hits a tally of 18 million unemployed.

To most people, Europe has become a project for the elite. For big business, and for those whose days are spent in airport departure lounges, more integration may make sense. But what does it bring to the majority of Europeans? This summit will show that Europe's leaders are being somewhat humbled. There will be less talk of grand designs; more of past mistakes and the need to get closer to the "citizens". The Dutch presidency has even suggested that heads of state and government arrive at the summit on bicycles. Tomorrow's final text will reveal Europe's more limited political ambitions. The Amsterdam Treaty was once intended to be a giant leap towards a framework for a federal Europe. But, whatever John Redwood claims, the final product will not go towards achieving what Helmut Kohl once envisaged as complete political union.

So where does Europe go after Amsterdam? The message from the streets should have been heard long ago, but after the French election results the demands can surely no longer be ignored. The French vote for the socialists was not anti-European; Lionel Jospin is as committed to European integration as any European leader. But by choosing Mr Jospin, the French believed they were at least voting for a different Europe - for a Europe which listened to people. Politicians going to the polls elsewhere on the continent are now certain to take note. Within the Brussels institutions there is also a clear recognition today that it is time to set aside theological debate about Europe's "architecture" and look at the substance of what the EU can do. Even within the European Commission there is relief that there is no more talk of another IGC.

There is a lot of "substance" to deal with in the next few years. Monetary union must be brought up and running effectively and in a way people can support. There is the crucial question of reforming the common agricultural policy. Finding ways to negotiate membership for countries such as Poland and Hungary will be a monumental task.

Tony Blair has been repeatedly asking the same question, each time more integration is proposed: "Why?" It is the people's question. It is the question that needs to be answered on every European front. No longer can the presumptions of the old Bonn-Paris elite be taken for granted. They must be challenged, but without undue prejudice. As Europe takes stock of its goals, the federal agenda will not go away. But the politicians must recognise that they cannot force the pace of integration - at least not until they have learnt how to take account of the views of that man at Messina.