Last week, this column was entitled "Open the Door, Ostrich." It called for EU governments to show rather more enthusiasm for opening up their supra-national community to new applicant members and their borders to new immigrants. In short, to stop putting their heads in the sand.
One reader, it appears, may have been British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Hence the headline in The Times on Thursday 29 June: "Britain to champion enlargement of EU."
OK. So it's not a very likely explanation (even if Central Europe Review is, no doubt, read in all the right places). But the article by Philip Webster and Martin Fletcher revealed that the UK government does wish to become the standard-bearer for the 13 countries applying for membership in the EU, and to give fresh momentum to the ongoing and protracted negotiations on enlargement.
Calling for the avant-garde
So what has caused the British Government to make this new policy announcement on EU enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe, and why has it chosen this moment?
It is likely that the change of emphasis was a direct reaction to French President Jacques Chirac's call on 27 June for the formation of a "pioneering group" of nations within the EU, which would push ahead faster with further integration. This would lead to the creation of a two-speed Europe, something Britain publicly opposes, partly for fear of losing influence in the Union and partly to keep the lid on divisions both within the Government and in the electorate at large.
Chirac's speech to the German Parliament in Berlin's newly renovated Reichstag followed Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's call at the Portuguese summit the previous week, for an avant-garde, or "inner core," to be formed and the ambitious plan for a federal Europe outlined last month by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told The Times:
In the debate that has been started by Herr Schröder and M Chirac there is a clear role for Britain in being the champion of enlargement. Countries that have applied to come into the EU are working hard to make the economic adjustments necessary for them to be admitted. They want reassurance about the nature of the EU they are joining.
We attach a high priority to enlargement as quickly as possible. We want those countries to be joining as full members of a Europe of equals, not finding that some other countries have moved on to an inner chamber from which they are excluded.
The British Government always faces a very difficult route when navigating through the minefields of EU policy. Nearly all British TV commentators and many in the print media tend to focus obsessively on either the single currency or on suspicions that Britain is being outflanked in Brussels. "Blair isolated as Berlin and Paris press for EU fast track," trumpeted a headline in the right-wing and deeply Eurosceptic Daily Mail on 28 June, probably relishing every word, with the centre-left tabloid The Mirror not too far behind with its own scares of isolation.
The current UK Government position on Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is to "prepare and decide," that is, to prepare for entry now and decide (by Act of Parliament and referendum) after the next general election (due by May 2002 but expected in 2001) whether the UK wants to be in it. The opposition Conservative Party, while remaining internally divided on the issue, has, under William Hague, its leader since 1997, shifted its European policy from one similar to the current Labour Government's to a position now markedly hostile to EMU - indeed, to any further integration at all or to the slightest whiff of enthusiasm for things European.
This has created a pair of "improbable allies" in Hague and Schröder, both of whom favour increased "flexibility" in the EU, observed Peter Riddell in The Times ("The Tories must be less rigid about European flexibilities," 27 June). "The Tory leader is content for an inner core of European countries to go ahead with closer integration, provided that Britain and others can opt out. The German Chancellor, like President Chirac of France, wants to be able to go ahead with closer co-operation without the agreement of all member states, as required under the Amsterdam treaty."
For the British Government, shifting attention away from EMU onto enlargement may be nigh on impossible. Yet it has been guilty in the past of never really trying. Now, it seems that there will be a concerted effort to focus attention on the admission of new members.
It is hard to avoid the following conclusions: the British are using enlargement as a means of opposing deeper integration, about which its Government and electorate are distinctly uneasy, not to say divided. And maybe the French President is using deeper integration as a way of opposing enlargement, about which he and the French electorate are distinctly uneasy.
"Although the French Government would not admit it publicly," wrote Webster and Fletcher, "it is regarded as being lukewarm about enlargement." (Note that the French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, a leading member of the Socialist Party Government currently in cohabitation with the Gaullist President Chirac, distanced himself and the Government from Chirac's remarks.)
The Times had a different take on Chirac's motives: a leader on 28 June ("So very French") suggested that the French President's speech contained "the most delicate of warnings to the German Government not to go out on a limb." The paper argued that he was actually seeking to appropriate the themes of recent pronouncements made by Schröder and Fischer, which had raised concerns in France - such as the call for the EU to develop a federal structure and constitutionally defined divisions of power between federal, national and regional levels - and turn them to French advantage.
Chirac, true to his Gaullist roots, stopped well short of endorsing Berlin's target of a federal Europe, and although he called for the early drafting of an EU constitution, he suggested it should not seek to be definitive too soon. This met with the approval of an editorial on FT.com ("Chirac's call," 27 June): "Mr Chirac was wise to talk of a first, not a final, constitution, and one in whose preparation applicant countries would be involved. It is vital not to make enlargement conditional on yet another IGC [Inter-Governmental Conference]."
But the Elysee may have revealed its aims through the President's very denials: "Mr Chirac stressed the 'pioneer group' would be open for others to join at their own speed. At a news conference he stressed that his proposal was not a tactic to delay enlargement." (Haig Simonian, "Chirac calls for two-tier Europe," 27 June, FT.com) He doth protest too much.
Chirac's positioning, therefore, offered Britain an opportunity, claimed the Times leader:
Tony Blair should see in this discourse not the 'deal of ruin' that others perceive for Britain, but a chance to turn 'flexibility' to its advantage. But to do that, he must apply his good, not his blind, eye to 'closer co-operation' in the months before the Nice summit. There is more to EU politics than the euro. Were he not paralysed by EMU, he would make more of what could be a stronger British hand than he now plays.
The day before, the same paper's Germany correspondent, Roger Boyes, noted the "true differences" underneath the surface of the Franco-German
Yet, if EU enlargement is to be championed, then the applicant countries will want to encourage that back seat driver to speak up for them, whatever its motives. Britain may have shown enthusiasm for EU enlargement in the past, but in recent times it has rarely done so publicly with any credibility. Rather late in the day, this Government has awoken to the benefits of championing expansion: using the widening of the Union as a means of preventing, delaying or modifying its deepening. And maybe even, perish the thought, of bringing some benefit to those states queueing up to join?
Oliver Craske, 30 June 2000
- Archive of Oliver Craske's articles in CER
- "Open the Door, Ostrich" (Last week's UK Press Review)
- Return to CER front page