By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 06/07/07):
In the sprawl of glass and metal structures where Germany’s chancellor and the country’s MPs have their offices, sighs of relief have not yet stopped echoing. Angela Merkel’s six-month presidency of the European Union, which ended last Saturday, made more progress than anyone expected.First she got agreement on ambitious European targets for reducing carbon emissions. Then, at the raucous recent Brussels summit, her patient efforts to conjure a reform treaty out of the wreckage of the failed EU constitution met with success. Germany took on the historically unusual role of being a unifier, thereby debunking the stereotype of an insensitive country that likes to throw its weight around.
In Britain, the Europhobic press claims Blair’s final act as prime minister was to sell the country down the Channel. The Conservatives demand a referendum on the new treaty. If their line was justified, one might expect to encounter a mood of triumphalism in Berlin. Not a bit of it. “It was an acceptable result. The summit wasn’t completely polarised and the sense of the constitution was salvaged. National interests are becoming stronger but we Europeans will continue to understand the benefits of cooperation,” said Gert Weisskirchen, foreign affairs spokesman for the Social Democrats’ parliamentary group, the junior partners in Germany’s ruling coalition.
Government officials are equally low-key and modest. They talk in negatives rather than positives. Suggestions that the treaty sets the stage for Europe to move towards some form of super-state are not justified, they argue. The old idea, mooted by federalists in the 1990s, of an inner core of Europe racing ahead to fuller union is a non-starter. They point to Merkel’s post-summit statement to the European parliament that “I have no desire for a two-speed Europe. That cannot be our goal.”
Far from seeing the reform treaty as a victory for the integrationists, as the Tories do, it looks more like a victory for the long standing and bipartisan British strategy of widening Europe so as to prevent its deepening. The summit did agree to combine the EU’s two foreign affairs civil servants into a single “high representative”. It also agreed to have a 30-month presidency instead of rotation every six months. But this is bureaucratic streamlining. It does not give either post more power. More significant is the fact that there is no major transfer of competencies from national governments to the union. National parliaments will have a greater role in examining EU issues than before.
The Brussels summit did little more than save the patient. It produced no roadmap for advance. The zeitgeist in Europe has changed. The “no” votes in France and the Netherlands two years ago crystallised a mood of scepticism which goes far beyond Britain. Some German analysts say Germany itself might have rejected the constitution had its citizens been allowed a referendum. A majority of Germans also wanted to serve notice on the continent’s elites not to go too fast.
Even the reform treaty is not out of the woods. Poland’s terrible twins, whose rude anti-German don’t-forget-the-war rhetoric was the summit’s low point, are threatening to re-open their case when governments meet this month to turn the Brussels agreement on principles into binding language. They will probably not get their way, but there is still the issue of referendums. France will not have another, since Nicolas Sarkozy has enough votes in parliament to support his refusal to hold one. But the Netherlands might.
The Labour party, the junior partner in the Dutch coalition, was an eager advocate of the 2005 referendum and is on the point of calling for one again. Jacques Tichelaar, its parliamentary group leader, says there is no reason not to submit the reform treaty to a new referendum. He applauds it as “very good for our country and for Europe”. Unlike British Tories who claim the treaty is as bad as the failed constitution and want a “no” vote in the hope of undermining Gordon Brown, Tichelaar argues that the text has changed enough for most Dutch voters to support it now.
If proof were required that Europe, with or without the prospective new high representative, still finds it almost impossible to have a united foreign policy, take the first crisis to return to the agenda since the Brussels summit – Kosovo. Here is a major European issue on which the union’s members are split several ways, though they share a sickening failure of will.
Until last year, Europe’s Kosovo policy was a lowest common denominator of playing for time. The issue was handed to former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari to craft a solution after talking to all sides. When he came up early this year with a call for the territory to have qualified independence, European leaders responded with a demand for one more round of talks. Then, at last month’s G8 summit, the brash new French president stunned everyone with a weak-nerved call for between four and six more months of delay and yet more talks. He had not even consulted his own foreign ministry, let alone his European G8 partners. But once the demand was public, they rallied in support.
Instead of leadership, the EU then left things to Washington, in the hope that at his meeting in Maine on Monday, George Bush could persuade Russia’s president Vladimir Putin not to veto a UN resolution giving Kosovo independence. Bush seems to have got nowhere. But, unlike Europe, the Americans have been crafting a plan B. They are considering the idea of encouraging the Kosovo Albanians to declare independence unilaterally with the promise that Washington will recognise the new state.
The paradox of Iraq is back again, in a reverse form from 2003 but one that is just as depressing. When Washington did the wrong thing by invading Iraq, too many European states said yes. Now, when Washington is thinking of doing the right thing over Kosovo, too much of Europe is saying no.
Eight years after Belgrade was forcibly stopped from driving the Albanians out of Kosovo, it is time to recognise that Serbian politicians will never agree to abandon the territory formally. They know Kosovo is lost but cannot say so. A unilateral declaration of independence by the Albanian majority is not ideal, but it is a solution. Further talks with no deadline will lead to greater impatience in Kosovo, a sense of betrayal, and the risk of violence – an outcome which only Belgrade wants. Collectively or individually, European governments must tell Washington and Kosovo’s leaders that they too accept the territory’s hour has come.