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Federalism finds its time
FEDERALISM is back - with a vengeance. For many years the British have lamented the fact that, while the future shape of the European Union is incessantly disputed here, our partners have seemed indifferent to or even impatient with any discussion, as if the supposed consensus in favour of federalism had imposed a taboo on public debate. Now, just as the British debate has temporarily subsided, on the Continent it has at last begun in earnest. As soon as the case for a European federation was set out clearly and honestly, the consensus in favour turned out to be a facade.
The taboo was broken by a speech on May 12 by the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer: a speech of historic importance to which no British minister has yet given a considered response. The speech was given, doubtless with deliberate symbolism, at the Humboldt University on Unter den Linden in former East Berlin: a Prussian royal palace which became the site of the greatest university on earth. Degraded by Nazis and Communists, it is now purged and resurgent.
Was it presumptuous of Mr Fischer to expound his vision of a united states of Europe from Hegel's pulpit? Perhaps not: he is one of the very few thoughtful figures on the present European stage. Although he belongs to the 1968 generation, was for many years a Marxist and is still nominally a Green, Mr Fischer's statesmanship is in the tradition of Gustav Stresemann, Konrad Adenauer or Helmut Kohl no less than that of Willy Brandt or Helmut Schmidt. Like the rest of his political class, he believes in the hard-headed pursuit of German interests, within an overarching European structure.
Thus a "greater Europe", incorporating the east, is very much in Germany's interest, but "the objective risks and temptations arising from Germany's dimensions and central situation can be permanently overcome" only if the decisive step is taken from a union of nation states to a European federation. "Nothing less than a European parliament and government which will exercise legislative and executive power" can compensate for the fact that Germany is, as it was from Bismarck to Hitler, the largest nation state in Europe. Federalism is a German solution to the German problem.
The importance of Mr Fischer's speech is that, perhaps for the first time, it offers a sketch of how Europe will get from here to there. He sets out a three-stage process by which a "fully sovereign" European federation could be created within a few years. It would begin with much closer intergovernmental co-operation between the Euro-11 group of states which already share a single currency. In stage two, a "centre of gravity" within that group would form the "nucleus of a federal constitution", leading to a new "founding treaty". This "avant garde" would create new institutions: a stronger parliament, a federal government and a directly elected president "with far-reaching executive powers". In stage three, the remaining EU states would eventually join the new system.
To entrench the "Europe of nations", Mr Fischer wants to follow the American model by creating a European senate, indirectly elected by national parliaments. Nation states would "preserve an essentially stronger role on the European level than the Länder do in Germany" (though it is hard to see why). He is well aware of British sensitivity to the word "federalism", but "no other word occurs to me". Mr Fischer evidently does not expect the British to join his avant garde, but he takes as axiomatic the doctrine of his predecessor, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, that no member state may hinder the rest. Mr Fischer's federation would amount to a European revolution.
The German foreign minister had unwittingly placed a bomb under the French elite. A week later, it detonated. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the French interior minister, spoke of a "tendency for Germany to imagine a structure for Europe which corresponds to its own model. Fundamentally, it still dreams of a Germanic Holy Roman Empire. It is still not cured of the derailment which Nazism was in its history. Germany has a conception of the nation which is that of the Volk; that is to say, an ethnic one."
There was uproar. Giscard d'Estaing among others, declared that it was "intolerable" to accuse the German leadership of a "Nazi inspiration and culture". The German press denounced the minister as a "notorious spoilsport" and Germanophobic nationalist. This was unfair: Mr Chevènement comes from Belfort, speaks fluent German and is the French cabinet's leading expert on Germany. The Schröder government wisely kept its counsel. Mr Chevènement himself quickly apologised for the false impression given by his remarks, but retracted nothing.
The small party he leads, the Movement of Citizens, is a vital part of the coalition led by the socialists, from whom he seceded over Maastricht. For this reason alone, Mr Chevènement could not be sacked by Lionel Jospin, as Nicholas Ridley was sacked by a reluctant Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Both the similarities and the differences between the two affairs are telling: Mr Chevènement's comments were just as harsh and out of step with official policy as those of Mr Ridley, but whereas the French minister could apparently speak with impunity, the British habit of appeasement dies hard.
In a later interview, Mr Chevènement denounced the conspiracy of silence in France about Europe and praised Mr Fischer for breaking it. But the former stuck to his guns: according to the foreign minister's federalist belief, "Germany would be the Alabama and France the Kansas of a united states of Europe". He was not accusing the Germans of being Nazis, rather the opposite: "The Germans damn National Socialism so strongly that they sometimes also damn the nation."
Mr Chevènement says he wants a "European Europe", not an American one. He is certainly truer to de Gaulle's legacy than Jacques Chirac, who has evaded the issue so far. The president told an audience of defence experts this week that he did not want a "divisive" debate about a federal Europe. In a coded rebuke to German federalists, Mr Chirac added that "it would be vain to try to define Europe in an abstract manner"; he preferred a "strong Europe on the international scene". On June 27, Mr Chirac is due to address the German Bundestag in Berlin. Then he will have to respond to the Fischer challenge.
I shall return to this fascinating debate on federalism, which does indeed go back to the Holy Roman Empire. But the Franco-German dialogue poses problems for both Tony Blair and William Hague. The unpopularity of federalism here makes it dangerous for Mr Blair to ally himself too closely with Mr Fischer, even though they have a great deal in common. Likewise, Mr Hague needs a long spoon if he is to sup with Mr Chevènement who, as defence minister, notoriously took his anti-Americanism as far as to sympathise with Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war.
Yet the federalist revolution is happening. British politicians
will have to take sides, and either way they will find themselves with
uncomfortable bedfellows. By the Nice summit next December, the first stage of
the Fischer plan may well already be under way.