Europe's crisis between the lines

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: June 16 2005

The heads of state and government of the European Union have received their traditional invitation from Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg's prime minister, to attend what promises to be a thoroughly bad-tempered summit in Brussels. The Financial Times has discovered, however, that a secret letter was sent out separately, suggesting a rather different agenda. The text is as follows:

Chers collègues,

You all know we are facing a serious political crisis in our Union. At such a time, it would be insane to allow ourselves to be bogged down in a squabble over the distribution of euros and cents in the EU budget. None of us enjoys such occasions, except possibly Jacques, who knows every detail of how French farmers benefit from our Common Agricultural Policy, and Tony, who has been swotting up on all the arguments to preserve the British rebate. If we are not careful, they will hog the entire occasion and block any agreement with ancient arguments.

So let us leave the budget to our financial experts and concentrate instead on the big strategic questions that lie behind our constitutional crisis. I want this to be a real brain-storming session, unlike the awfully formal affairs that our European Councils have become, where we never really engage in a proper exchange of views. I think some people simply come for the family photograph (no names mentioned).

It strikes me that we face three great dilemmas at the heart of our European project, brought into the open by the French and Dutch No votes on the EU constitutional treaty.

One is about enlargement of our membership: it has been the greatest success of our foreign policy, helping us export peace and prosperity, and yet it is unpopular with our domestic voters. Can we persuade them that it is for the benefit of all, or should we abandon any further expansion?

The second challenge is about how to galvanise economic growth and create more jobs in the heartland of Europe, especially in Germany, France and Italy. Somehow we have to reconcile faster growth and more competition with the preservation of our social welfare system, which the voters in France were demanding. Do they have to be in conflict?

Third, we must persuade our citizens that the EU is still relevant to them, and that they have an influence on the way it works. How can we fill the democratic deficit and reconcile national democracy with European decision-making?

We are not going to solve these problems overnight but I have set aside an entire day to discuss the budget, so behind that smokescreen we can try at least to define the questions.

First, we should ask Jacques and Jan Peter to explain how and why they lost their referendum campaigns in France and the Netherlands. I do not want them to pretend they were not part of the problem. We are all grown-up politicians. But who better to analyse the political dilemmas we face at home, and why people voted No when their political leaders were calling for a Yes? They should tell us whether there is any prospect of ratification at a later date. I suspect not.

I shall ask Tony to explain why he felt it politically necessary to rush ahead in announcing the suspension of his process for ratifying the treaty in the UK. I know a lot of you are unhappy about that, so let us hear it. Why should the whole process be stopped when two countries have voted Noand 10 Yes? Who wants to carry on?

Most important, we must discuss why this is happening and what we can do about it. It is not enough just to muddle on with the ratification process and hope something turns up. It is not enough to set up some "committee of wise experts" to tell us in 12 months' time what we should know ourselves. That is just playing for time. We need the debate now and we are the right people to conduct it.

Take the issue of enlargement. I know the official plan for the summit is to ignore the entire question. But we cannot. It is not just that we have to agree a negotiating mandate to open talks with Turkey on October 3. We also have an urgent question over the western Balkans: we need to offer the prospect of membership to countries such as Serbia, Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo to persuade them not to go back to war. But can we ever deliver? Let us debate that frankly today.

On the economy, I suspect there is far more common ground between the "social" and "liberal" camps than either would admit. Let us hear from Jacques and Gerhard about the backlash they face at home and then from the countries that have had higher growth inside the eurozone, such as Finland, Ireland and Spain. Is the EU not a framework in which all models can flourish? Why are our ambitions in the Lisbon agenda not bearing fruit?

As for the democratic deficit, it is perhaps the greatest dilemma of all. Why am I writing to you to suggest a secret debate? Because if we made it public, you would all go scoring points against each other in your national media before it was over and undermine any hope of a sensible conclusion. At least, Jacques and Tony would, for a start. It is so tempting to find a scapegoat for our own mistakes.

We must all be willing to compromise, even if it is unpopular. In that spirit, as prime minister of the wealthiest country per capita in the EU, I am ready to become a serious net contributor to the budget. How is that for an offer? Yours faithfully, Jean-Claude Juncker.