Mixed feelings about new German plan to discuss future of EU

Tue, Mar 20, 2012, 00:00

A NEW German initiative to discuss the future of Europe – including better co-ordination of EU finance and economic policy – is in trouble before it even begins this evening in Berlin.

Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has invited eight EU foreign ministers to the Villa Borsig, north of Berlin, as part of his new “Future Group”. But his officials are already on the defensive, explaining what the meeting is not. It is not about establishing an EU policy avant garde, an official said yesterday, nor was it a likely to produce formal proposals. So what is it? For Mr Westerwelle, it is about moving the European debate, shifting the gaze beyond the day-to-day euro zone crisis.

“This kind of debate is hanging in the air. There’s an expectation that Germany takes on an important role in this debate,” said a foreign ministry official. “This isn’t about a German prescription for Europe being imposed on anyone.” Despite this, and the fact that there is no formal agenda, a Berlin foreign ministry paper proposes discussing integration of EU justice and trade affairs, as well as economic and finance policy.

Debate is likely too on achieving “more democracy” in Europe by strengthening the European Parliament and organising more efficiently other EU institutions.

German officials say their invitation list is limited in the interests of a proper conversation. But invitees reflect all geographical and historical experiences in the EU, they say. Further meetings of this group are likely, but membership is unlikely to be extended.

Invited to attend were foreign ministers from the EU’s five other founding members – France, Italy and the three Benelux states – as well as Denmark, Poland, Portugal, Austria and Spain.

The Danes are ambivalent about the fact that such a fundamental initiative is being started while they hold the rotating EU presidency. The Danish minister will not attend, and neither will Alain Juppé of France.

Irish officials question the wisdom of starting such a debate just as the fiscal treaty ratification process – and Irish referendum campaign – gets under way.

The Lisbon Treaty moved European policy largely into the hands of EU heads of state and government at the expense of the bloc’s foreign ministers. Thus there is confusion about how Mr Westerwelle’s initiative sits alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own series of informal dinners.

Anticipating the problem of exclusive invitations, the German leader is inviting EU leaders three at a time, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny last month.