Not a crisis crisis, but big enough to change Britain

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The Independent Online
'EUROPEAN crises' are, in our days, of concern only to a tiny group of political fanatics. For the vast majority of people, these great battles over treaties, concepts and abstract power-relations between institutions, mean absolutely nothing. They do not appear to change life at all, or only in small and mildly irritating ways.

This is, naturally, progress. It is better that political leaders spend their time arguing about qualified majority voting, or 'variable geometry', or which podgy identikit Christian Democrat should get which office in Brussels, than that they should be getting cross and self-righteous about borders or religion.

So if we say that there are signs of an approaching 'European crisis', we should at once admit that we are not talking about the Europe of great cities, technology, art and landscape - the Europe where people live - but only about the series of interlocking bureaucratic institutions that go about rather pretentiously calling themselves 'Europe'. And we are not talking about a crisis in the old sense: no blood will be spilled.

What are we talking about? In essence, a further divergence between how France and Germany see the politics of this part of the world, and how Britain does.

The worst possible result of this divergence is that the next generation of Britons will be less influential in European politics, and perhaps less wealthy, than they would otherwise be. This is not much. But it is enough, perhaps, for well- educated and public-minded British people to think about from time to time.

John Major is off to speak in the Netherlands tomorrow about the development of the European Union. He does so against a background of Franco-German thinking which is not so much antagonistic to British views as wholly uninterested in them. According to one of his colleagues, the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has, over the past six months, more or less written off his once-prized relationship with Mr Major. And a week ago, the French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, raised the idea of a Europe of three concentric circles, with France, Germany and a few others in the inner, core circle.

This is remarkably similar to the thinking of key members of Kohl's Christian Democratic Union: last week Wolfgang Schauble, its parliamentary leader, and Karl Lamers, its foreign affairs spokesman, produced a provocative paper calling for a 'hard core' of countries - France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands - to press ahead with monetary union and a strong federal centre.

The paper, and the thinking behind it, is not a conscious rebuff to Britain: we feature only as an afterthought. Rather, it is focused on the Franco-German relationship, which the Germans call 'the core of the hard core', and how to keep it glued. 'The task of the hard core is, by giving the Union a strong centre, to counteract the centrifugal forces generated by constant enlargement and thereby to prevent a South-West grouping, more inclined to protectionism and headed, in a certain sense, by France, drifting apart from a North-East grouping, more in favour of free world trade and headed in a certain sense by Germany,' say Schauble and Lamers.

To that end, France and Germany have to come closer together on industrial policy and on military questions; France has to drop its residual attachment to the sovereignty of the nation-state, which has 'long since become an empty shell', and the two countries should take 'no significant actions in the EU or foreign policy fields' without consulting one another.

This is a considerable proposal. Multi-speed Europe as proposed here and by Balladur is radically different from multi-speed Europe as advocated in the spring by Mr Major. He advocates a complex network of relationships: Britain might be at the centre of the 'hard core' on foreign and security policy, but outside it on monetary policy. We would be close to the French on some issues, and to the Germans or Italians on others. The latest British buzz-phrase, which may surface in Mr Major's speech, is of a 'multi-core' Europe.

This vision is dismissed by senior continental politicians as hankering after a return to the Europe of Metternich and Castlereagh, of shifting and unstable alliances between nation-states manoeuvring ceaselessly for advantage. You can no more have a multi-core European Union than you can have a multi-core apple, they will say. The language may sound similar on either side of the Channel, but the meanings are almost opposite.

How seriously should Britain take this? It is a hard question. There are low-grade, personal reasons to be sceptical. Electioneering is behind a lot of public position- taking in Germany and France. Germany's foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, a Liberal, is distinctly sniffy about the Christian Democrat paper. In France, Balladur is speaking with one eye on a possible presidential bid by Jacques Delors; he does not want to be outmanoeuvred on European policy.

There are also more profound causes for scepticism. In both countries, monetary union will be an intensely controversial and difficult issue. Italy and Spain are deeply suspicious about all this Franco-Germania. Neither can be ignored. Both are potential allies for Britain. On the other hand, this is the year when France and Germany share the presidency of the European Council. President Mitterrand has scattered through the streets and squares of Paris quite enough personal monuments in architectural terms. He may want to leave behind a final piece of political architecture, too. Chancellor Kohl, by contrast, may be flushed with self-confidence after an election victory.

It could come with a new drive to monetary union. It could come with new proposals on defence. But a crusade for a new, core Union is not impossible. The trap that politics has laid for Mr Major is that so many of his own party would welcome a Franco-German inner core as the first step to British disengagement from the whole thing. There is, potentially, a malign convergence of interest at play, with Tory Euro-sceptics and continental leaders wanting, for opposite reasons, to alter the dynamics of European power. Mr Major's speech ought to own up to the danger and explain how he proposes to avoid it, but it probably won't.

This matter is not trivial, even for those who are not political fanatics. An inner-core Europe would reinforce just the sort of continental hegemony that British policy has always feared and resisted. In trade, in diplomacy, in a host of ways, it could reduce us further; and it is nearer now than it has been for a long time. This is not a crisis crisis. It will be long, messy, confusing, dull. But, eventually, it will change our country.