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Blue skies over Berlin?

European Union / COMMENTARY

Date: 27/03/2007
The blue skies over Berlin during last weekend’s celebrations of the EU’s 50th anniversary mirrored what appeared to be a genuinely sunnier mood around the Union’s top table.
After a week of bad-tempered attacks on Germany’s handling of the drafting the much-heralded Berlin Declaration, EU Heads of State and Government buried their differences - for the time being at least - and declared their commitment to putting the Union back on track (although German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not actually ask any of them to sign on the dotted line).
But can the storm clouds which have hovered over Europe since French and Dutch voters rejected the Constitutional Treaty in 2005 really be blown away that easily?
Last weekend’s much-needed display of unity was only achieved by using the vaguest of terms in the Berlin Declaration to refer to the two most contentious issues on the EU’s agenda - the fate of the Constitutional Treaty and future enlargement. On the first, the Declaration simply talked about “placing the European Union on a renewed common basis before the European Parliament elections in 2009”; and there was only an oblique mention of the second in a reference to the EU’s “openness”.
But Ms Merkel showed no such coyness in her speech to fellow leaders, telling them: “If we are to safeguard the European way of life and assume global responsibility, Europe needs to be able to act, to act more effectively than it can at present.”
Insisting that the EU’s internal structures “must be adapted to an enlarged Union with 27 Member States”, she said it needed more and “better defined” competences in energy policy, foreign policy, and justice and home affairs; must determine more clearly what Member States and the Community respectively are responsible for; must concentrate on “core tasks” and preserve the unique features of the Member States where possible; and must ensure its institutions function “efficiently, democratically and in a way which citizens understand”.
At the post-summit press conference, she went even further, suggesting a very tight timetable for securing a deal on institutional reform, with a “short and concentrated” Intergovernmental Conference to agree a new treaty by the end of the year.
This was immediately branded as “unrealistic” by Polish President Lech Kaczyński, while his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus has made it clear he does not see agreeing a new treaty as a priority. But there was unexpected support from UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said there was “no doubt” that an expanding EU needed to change its rules and “the sooner this is the resolved the better”. (It is noteworthy, however, that Mr Blair is expected to leave office by the summer, so will not be the one who has to negotiate the new treaty and sell it to a sceptical British public.)
Ms Merkel once again displayed the diplomatic skills which are making her such a hit on the EU stage. A phone call to Prague on the eve of the celebrations succeeded in averting the Czech President’s threat to withhold his support for the Declaration. She then rewarded him for not spoiling the party, and made sure he stayed onside, by seating him next to her both at the concert which opened the celebrations and again at the ceremony to launch the Declaration the following day.
Her speech to EU leaders also struck just the right note, combining an emotional evocation of the Union’s achievements to date with a reminder of the challenges it faces in future and even a few good jokes at some Member States’ expense: most notably, a wry reference to the British diplomat who predicted at the time of the Treaty of Rome negotiations that the project was doomed.
Confirming that the German Presidency would produce a ‘roadmap’ for settling the institutional reform issue at the June European Council, the Chancellor told fellow EU leaders: “I am counting on your support.”
The success of last weekend’s meeting surely makes that more likely, with Ms Merkel adding to the considerable credit she has banked in her previous appearances on the EU stage since becoming Chancellor.
This is credit she will need to draw on heavily in the coming months as she searches for a way out of the constitutional impasse. The Czech President may have gone along with the Berlin Declaration in the end, but he nevertheless described it as “Orwellian Eurospeak” on the eve of the summit. His Polish counterpart Lech Kaczyński said he would support it because otherwise “we would be the only country not to do so” - hardly a ringing endorsement of the text.
Ms Merkel’s decision not to ask all 27 EU leaders to sign it was probably wise, given the rumblings about its content beforehand, but the fact that she did not dare risk doing so speaks volumes. The Declaration itself appears to have been drafted on the ‘lowest common denominator’ principle, confining itself to statements with which few could disagree, and yet despite this, it still had the potential to open up the rifts over Europe’s future direction within the EU’s ranks.
Furthermore, it leaves key questions on the substance of any new treaty and the detailed timetable for agreeing it unanswered: placing the Union on a “renewed common basis” can mean whatever individual EU leaders want it to mean; and while some see the 2009 deadline as meaning agreement on a new treaty by the end of this year, in order to complete the ratification process before the Euro-elections, others argue that it could be agreed but not ratified by then.
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, for one, is under no illusion about the scale of the task which lies ahead, urging EU leaders to show the political will to be “open, not closed; to be brave, not frightened”. He said this was the kind of historical test that a generation of political leaders faces once in a lifetime.
Whether the current crop of EU leaders are equal to the task remains to be seen. Ms Merkel’s timetable for settling the institutional reform appears, to say the least, to be highly ambitious. If anything, the gap between the Constitutional Treaty’s supporters and those who favour a minimalist approach has widened since the start of the year.
There was also one curious - and glaring - omission from last weekend’s discussions. After all the talk of “reconnecting with the citizens” since the French and Dutch ‘No’ votes, this barely rated a mention. The Berlin Declaration referred only to the “democratic interaction of the Member States and the European institutions” and the “will of the Member States”, and Ms Merkel was addressing fellow EU leaders, not the general public, when she said “I am counting on your support”.
Once again, the impression was left that it would be down to Europe’s elite - the politicians - to find a way out of the impasse. The most crucial question of all - how to engage the public in the debate over Europe’s future and gain their support for whatever agreement emerges from that process - remains unanswered.

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