European space and EU design not quite the same

Sat, Apr 15, 2000, 01:00

Europe is an encounter between a space and a design, according to Michel Foucher, director of research at the French foreign ministry. Its frontiers are manmade, not divine. They are the products of geopolitical, cultural and historical power.

Peter the Great defined the Urals as the supposed border of Europe. This was a strategic definition which suited his own purpose, rather than a geographical given; it is something from which contemporary Europeans should learn as the design of the new enlarged European Union is decided.

This must be done in Europe, he added, not in Washington; and it must be done in the full awareness that Europe and the European Union are not the same thing, however much they are converging with an enlargement that could easily double the EU's numbers in the next 20 years.

Mr Foucher was speaking at a seminar in Bucharest organised by the French and German foreign ministries for journalists from existing and prospective EU member-states.

It examined how Franco-German co-operation might develop in an enlarged EU - and provided an excellent opportunity to look at the European space and its prospective design from many perspectives and directions - including Romania's.

Reinhard Silberberg, deputy director of the German Chancellor's foreign policy staff, reminded us that Franco-German reconciliation has been at the heart of European integration in the post-war years. His own father, grandfather and great-grandfather had fought against France in 1870, 1914 and 1939.

But after 50 years of close co-operation, such wars are now unimaginable. European integration originally combined French design and German engineering, French politics and German economics.

Indeed, the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, talks of the two countries being in a post-reconciliation period. Such a normalisation poses many questions about the continuing functions of the Franco-German axis.

What is going on under its bonnet? Its engines have not been heard as much recently and there is speculation that perhaps it has run its course.

Has the balance decisively shifted? Was the great geopolitical trade-off between German unification and the single European currency the last we shall see on such a grand scale?

Mr Silberberg disagrees, and so do his French counterparts. He emphasises how closely the two states work together, from the 1012 annual bilateral meetings of their heads of state and government, through the daily contact between high officials in most ministries and the exchange of diplomats. It extends even to sharing diplomatic instructions in EU negotiations, as happened in the final stages of the Amsterdam Treaty - much to the astonishment of their British colleagues.

The suggestion that their bilateral axis might be broadened into a triangular relationship including the British after the Blair government's commitment to be at the heart of Europe is seen as a misconception.

Franco-German co-operation is not exclusive and is strengthened by reconciling continuing differences between the two states. Fifty years of institutional development create their own momentum. But the relationship certainly needs to be broadened out to citizens of both countries, especially to a younger generation which takes reconciliation so much for granted.

The co-operation continues through the current Inter-Governmental Conference on decision-making and institutions. Both want to limit the size of the European Commission and reweight voting and representation more in favour of the larger states.

They also want more flexibility to allow smaller groups of states move towards deeper integration in such fields as the environment and defence and security, rather than have to wait on less developed states to catch up.

There appears to be no great desire to put an alliance-type commitment to collective defence into the treaty, since the current plans for a European rapid reaction force are being implemented within the Treaty of Amsterdam. Such a joint approach creates fears of a directoire or a two-tier system in which the newer states, most of them smaller ones, fear being marginalised.

We heard a powerful plea for understanding from President Emil Constantinescu of Romania. He used Franco-German co-operation as a metaphor for Romania's reconciliation with Hungary in recent years, expressed in a 1996 treaty. Conflict between the Hungarian minority in Transylvania and the Romanian ethnic majority has been transformed into an increasingly stable co-operation; the Hungarian minority are represented in the coalition government. Elections later this year could change this political configuration, as the populist-nationalist ex-communist Ion Iliescu looms large in opinion polls.

But observers believe this reconciliation would probably survive his return. This is because of what President Constantinescu describes as the importance of the European idea, which gives Romania and its neighbours the opportunity to be part of a united European entity for the first time in 1,000 years. This, he believes, is underestimated in the West.

Reconciliation rather than ethnic/nationalist conflict has characterised central and eastern Europe, with the exception of ex-Yugoslavia.

Mr Constantinescu wishes that were better understood in western Europe. He made a plea to counter the stereotypes of abandoned children and political and cultural backwardness Romania suffers from. Despite its many problems, the visitor to Bucharest, a handsome and developing city, must agree. "Mutual respect is even more important than aid. Dignity is more important than standards of living," he said.

THE message was echoed by Janusc Reiter, a former Polish ambassador to Germany. Their reconciliation is also part of the post-1989 story, drawing on the Franco-German precedent. But so are relations between Poland and Ukraine and Belarus, which contribute to the economic and political development of each of these states. They would be disrupted by the imposition of closed borders in the accession negotiations, as Poland and other states are expected to police the new EU frontiers on behalf of France, Germany and the rest of the EU states. It will be necessary to find compromises to suit the neighbours' interests. More creative approaches are needed rather than a mechanical, unprioritised imposition of the entire EU legal order on the accession states. Why should it be Poland (or Romania) which has to bring the bad news to the EU's neighbours, Mr Reiter asked.

This was salutary for all concerned, a reminder that enlargement is a political exercise more than a simple economic or legal one.

Mr Constantinescu reminded us that all the medium-sized and smaller states in Europe were previously subordinated to different empires which used one against another to consolidate their competitive rule.

Escaping from that imperial past also affects France and Germany, Mr Foucher accepted. The EU must be a post-imperial and voluntary association of nation-states.

Ms Pascale Andreani, director of European co-operation in the French foreign ministry, agreed; the EU is sui generis, less than federal, perhaps best described in Jacques Delors's phrase as a federation of nation states - an experiment that has never been tried before.

In that sense it remains democracy's answer to empire. Konrad Adenauer and Guy Mollet, it should be recalled, reached their crucial breakthrough in negotiating the Treaty of Rome in 1956 only when they heard from Anthony Eden the UK had unilaterally pulled out of the Suez adventure under pressure from the US. Empires indeed.

pgillespie@irish-times.ie