Cheer up, Europe

Most Europeans won’t be too disappointed by the modesty of this week’s work in Amsterdam

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IT WAS a crabby week in Europe, culminating in a half-agreement in Amsterdam which, far from drawing a nice clear map of the European Union’s future, left a vista of blank spaces on a dog-eared document and scowls on the faces of many of the continent’s leaders (see
article). The crabbiest of issues—though it was not originally meant to have been on the Amsterdam agenda at all—was Europe’s planned single currency, the euro. An argument between France and Germany did not quite ruin the occasion. Indeed, the euro still, on balance, looks likely to arrive on time, in 1999. But the way it will be managed looks ever more dubious.

As for the non-euro parts of the meeting, it became embarrassingly plain how much harder it is for 15 countries, rather than the dozen that last fixed up a new plan for Europe—at Maastricht in 1991—to agree on a path forward. And adding to the mood of crabbiness was the realisation that the pair that have previously driven the European idea, France and Germany, are no longer in synch, and not just over the euro. Helmut Kohl, Germany’s chancellor, has lost much of his authority; and France’s new Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, does not yet seem to have decided quite what sort of Europe, let alone what sort of euro, he wants.

The saddest conclusion to be drawn is that the new French government has no idea how to slay the monster of unemployment that is blighting much of the continent and has given the EU such a bad name. It is not the struggle to create a euro that has put 18m EU citizens out of work, but the failure of governments, France’s in particular, to deregulate their economies, privatise state behemoths and free their labour markets. All the talk in Amsterdam about co-ordinating labour policies was mere waffle. If the European club is to recover its prosperity, those measures, not arguments over whether the euro should be hard or soft, are what matters.

In any event, the emerging shape of Europe is looking rather different from the edifice imagined by the leaders of France and Germany five years ago. A future EU now promises to be a lot less grand. The single market is a huge success, but other vehicles for “ever closer union” are stalling. A joint defence identity is still a dream. The idea of joint foreign policy has failed to go far, though it was agreed in Amsterdam that once a shared policy has been unanimously accepted, some aspects of its implementation could then be decided by majority vote among the EU’s members. A common policy on immigration, visas and asylum will gradually be arranged, but again only by unanimity. Border controls within the Union (except in Britain and Ireland) will fade. But, significantly, speedy integrationists seem to have failed in Amsterdam to win a system whereby those keenest to form inner clubs within the EU will be able simply to ignore objections from laggards like Britain. If the Union expands to, say, 20 members over the next five years or so, it will be harder still for the integrationists to create even the kernel of a United States of Europe.

What this all means is that the supranationalists, especially with France and Germany newly at odds, are on the defensive. Yet, at the same time, it will plainly be far from easy to bring in at all quickly even the most promising candidates: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, perhaps Slovenia, perhaps Estonia. The Union’s operating procedures—the way voting weights are decided, the number of EU commissioners per member, and so on—will have to change. Yet, after spending fully 18 months on precisely those issues, the Amsterdam summiteers failed pathetically to reach conclusive agreement. Instead, in a classic prevarication, they decided to adjust the mechanisms—once applicants come close to joining.

Ode to modified joy

But at least those applicants can, by the end of the year, start negotiating in earnest. Indeed, step back from Amsterdam and you see much to cheer about in Europe. For all its hiccups and slip-ups, the continent is groping forward. Its market, the biggest in the world, is getting bigger and freer. The Union is still on course to absorb swathes of the continent that, less than a decade ago, were in the suffocating grip of communism. NATO, the military organisation that already clasps most of the EU’s members together, is poised to expand too, with formerly neutral states as well as ex-Soviet satellites already linked in partnership.

The continent as a whole, whatever the disappointments that have followed the fall of communism, is slowly becoming safer, richer and more hopeful. Even countries as rough as Russia, Romania and Bulgaria are moving in the right direction. The Balts look a bit less vulnerable, the Caucasus a bit less chaotic, the Balkans a bit less bloody. The United States is still engaged. The mood in Western Europe remains likely to reflect the prospects for the single currency, and there will be much gloom if it fails. But it is becoming plainer that the euro’s postponement or failure would not, whatever Mr Kohl says, be a war-or-peace matter in the eyes of most Europeans. Europe has plenty to occupy itself with for some time to come. The modesty of Amsterdam was recognition of that.

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