Are We All Agreed Then?

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Certain rights adhere to being a founding member. France, one of the European Union's originals, claimed those privileges last week when President Jacques Chirac suggested that some E.U. counties — charter members Germany and France, for starters — should form a "pioneer group" within the 15-state union that could move "farther or faster" toward political integration. Chirac chose the perfect pulpit when he became the first foreign leader to address the German Bundestag in the revamped Reichstag building in Berlin. His tone in outlining his vision for the bulky and often disparaged institution was frankly proprietorial. In a speech that trumpeted the continuity of relations between Europe's two most important countries, Chirac declared, "There are moments when one has to take risks and leave well-traveled rails behind. Only at that price will we be able to execute this great common project."

Chirac appears to have a willing partner for such new departures. German parliamentarians showered him with applause in a standing ovation, and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer — who looked downright bored during the 45-minute oration — later called it "a very, very important speech."

But perhaps because a certain resentment also accrues to founding members, Chirac's proposals rekindled fears of a two-speed Europe. For the United Kingdom — already in effect relegated to Europe's second tier because it chose not to be a member of the euro zone — the prospect of a concerted Franco-German effort to leave it still further in the dust was not a pleasant one. Nevertheless, the British government put on a brave face, plagued as it is by endless debate about adopting the euro. Said Prime Minister Tony Blair: "There is absolutely no problem with the speech President Chirac gave and I think we in Britain should have a little more confidence in our ability to shape arguments, have influence and to play our part in Europe without constantly worrying that Europe is going to turn into a conspiracy against Britain." Blair had a lower-key meeting with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Berlin later in the week to press the point that the U.K. is still a player in Europe.

London, which has been a driver of European unity in defense matters, recognizes that enhanced cooperation among some members will have to be possible in a European Union that could include 27 or 28 members by the end of the decade, so that, as Blair said, "one country could not block the progress of others when that was perfectly sensible." Such agreements already exist, of course, in everything from the euro 11 to the Schengen agreement on border controls. Chirac's proposals for further integration are nebulous enough now for Downing Street to keep its public utterances on the same level of abstraction; the real fighting will come in the lead-up to the European Council summit at year's end in Nice, where France hopes to present key treaty changes to set the E.U. for enlargement.

It is undeniable that a Europe of two dozen-plus can't function under current arrangements, but the candidate countries are leery of any suggestion that the goalposts are still shifting. The first among the present 13 candidates have seen their accession date recede further and further. Chirac himself predicted in 1996 that Poland and Hungary would be members by 2000, yet that prospect remains a good four years off at best. Without referring to Chirac's speech, Günter Verheugen, the European Commissioner overseeing enlargement, felt compelled last week to warn member states: "Do not introduce second-class membership. We cannot afford a closed shop system of a core group of countries."

The debate Chirac joined with such gusto in Berlin isn't new: in 1994, German Christian Democrats proposed a "core Europe" that would march farther and faster than other members; a passel of politicians since then — including former Commission President Jacques Delors — have made their own proposals for an avant-garde within the E.U. In a seminal speech at Berlin's Humboldt University on May 12, Fischer proposed forming a "center of gravity" around core states that would conclude their own treaty, leading to a federation within the E.U. with its own elected president and parliament.

Chirac was in one sense more modest than Fischer, partly by dint of his position. "It was not possible for a French head of state to go further, as Delors and Fischer have done," said a presidential adviser. But at the same time — perhaps also by dint of his position at the head of the E.U.'s most influential member, which took up its six-month presidency July 1 — he set off alarms with his suggestion that this pioneer group should have a secretariat to ensure "coherence."

While Chirac said that such a group "must stand open to all who want to join it," it was this idea of institutionalizing the core group that worried many observers. "It's an old French trait to set up a directoire with them in the middle," says Michael Emerson, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels think tank. "But they have to realize they're not the France of Napoleon anymore: if they don't submit to the democratic will of their co-member states, they'll find they won't get anywhere."

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh recognizes the need for some reinforced cooperation among certain members, not least among the 11 — to become 12 next January with the addition of Greece — who have adopted the euro. "We want to be a part of the euro zone at some point, and there's no question that there is a need for more political cooperation among the Euro 11 or 12," she told Time. But Lindh is worried that formalizing an inner core could send a dangerous signal. "Institutionalizing an avant-garde group might raise a big threat of Europe splitting into an A team and B team," she says. "New members should not have to fear automatically being placed on the B team," says Lindh. "That could create a divided Europe all over again."

What's more, there are points at which "enhanced cooperation," to use the Eurospeak, could rub up against the demands of Europe's prime raison d'etre, the single market. With its Scandinavian neighbors, Sweden has been at the forefront of promoting tighter environmental standards, such as restrictions on the prophylactic use of antibiotics for farm animals. Says Lindh: "We need to have higher standards for everyone, not just for an avant-garde. Otherwise we could be at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace."

With his Berlin speech, Chirac has stolen a march on his putative adversary in 2002 presidential elections, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, by being the one to give a French twist to Fischer's own proposal. "By speaking out, he is taking the lead as the more pro-European of the two men," says Dominique Moïsi, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations. "Outside France, he didn't want to leave the benefit of taking the lead on Europe to the Germans alone." The onus is now on both Chirac and Jospin to dispel doubts about their commitment to enlargement by brokering revision of the E.U. institutions in time for the Nice Council. With so much fog in the air over the Union's future, keeping the eye on that ball will be no easy task.

With reporting by J.F.O. McAllister/London, Thomas Sancton/Paris and Regine Wosnitza/Berlin