So, Britain is about to join the ‘fast track’ of a new, two-speed Europe. At least, that was the message going out after Foreign Secretary Jack Straw remarked in an interview with the Figaro that "associating the UK with the Franco-German motor seems logical as Europe passes from 15 to 25 members".
Those who have any knowledge of British involvement in European integration know that British involvement in a ‘pioneer Europe’ is going to be about as successful as our recent pioneering probe on Mars - and about equally far-fetched. Indeed, the EU Observer, who reported the comment under the title ‘UK set to join Franco-German motor,’ must really be on another planet.
Not simply is it the case that politicians often make misleading remarks when talking to foreign papers, safe in the knowledge that their comments will not be heard by their domestic audience. After all, sometimes such comments can be quite revealing, and reflect a deeply held-sentiment. But for the British government to propel themselves in a pro-European direction would be technically impossible: popular opinion would generate too much friction and resistance, and the government themselves do not have the drive it takes to get there.
We should remind ourselves of the situation: in December, talks on Europe’s constitutional treaty collapsed. Europe’s future has been left open - either the constitution will be resurrected (in some form) later this year, or France and Germany proceed with ‘plan B’ – a group of committed states band together into a ‘core Europe’ leaving all doubters and troublemakers on the outside. In the space of one month, we have gone from a situation where Europe’s future was clearly mapped out ahead to one where the frontiers are very wide open indeed.
The virtue of the Constitutional Convention was that it allowed each state to gradually put aside their national reservations and get onboard a common legislative ship. But the dream-like calm that reigned after the convention’s close has now been shattered by December's breakdown. Each state has time to reflect on its real relation to Europe and reconsider its position. Strong states, like France, are wondering whether they would be so wise to abandon the intergovernmental process in which they held such sway. And Britain, who was initially opposed to the idea of a constitution but then came to support it as a ‘tidying-up measure’ (in the words of the government), is beginning to wonder whether it really tidies anything up at all.
Thus British support for the ‘two-speed’ idea now has an atmosphere of cynicism. On the one hand, there are supporters like France who believe that a fast-track ‘core Europe’ would act like a heavy planet, pulling all inside by the force of its gravity (or at least transform them into obedient satellites). But that is precisely the kind of outcome that Britain fears. For of course there is another opinion on the matter: sceptics believe that a ‘core European constellation’ would instead have the effect of flinging reluctant members to the far corners forever. So the British position is to provide support for the idea of ‘two speeds’ but on the sceptics’ assumption that it will hold apart rather than bring together Europe’s nations.
After all, what does a 'core' Europe really amount to? The truth is that ‘two-speeds’ is fundamentally just a continuation of the status quo. Already with respect to economic integration (the euro) and border policy (Schengen) we have a system of ‘variable geometry’ in place; a ‘two-speed’ Europe will simply apply this same principle to new areas, such as foreign policy, tax, or defense. And with the exception of this latter, Britain would almost certainly seek an opt-out in all areas.
A two-speed Europe will therefore leave unresolved many of the problems that led to the constitutional convention being established in the first place: it would continue the democratic deficit, Europe’s institutions would remain shrouded in mystery, her more quirky features, like the 6-month rotating presidency, would be firmly left in place. On the other hand, it opens up the promise of a fast-track European integration for a select group of states combined with the possibility of an opt-out for those who are not prepared to commit themselves to a single European super-state.
Europe therefore has a choice. She can continue the constitutional process and seek clear political structures now. Or she can continue with her present 'continental drift' - in the vague hope that ever-closer economic and bureaucratic union will one day bring us to a planet where the Union’s twelve-starred flag can be planted in a more promising political atmosphere. And let us hope there will be more 'signs of life' at that point than there are at this moribund stage in Europe's voyage.