The failure of the European Union summit to agree on a draft new constitution has encouraged France and Germany to look hard at their fallback position, pushing for a two-speed Europe in which they strike out on their own to become a federal core, leaving the rest to trail behind in their wake.
The summit broke up because neither Germany and France on the one hand, nor Poland and Spain on the other, were prepared to compromise over the crucial issue of power - how many votes each country would wield in the European Council, where the key decisions are made.
Under the current system, adopted at the Treaty of Nice three years ago, big countries like Germany (81 million people) and France (60 million) and Britain (60 million) each got 29 votes in the Council. Medium sized countries like Poland and Spain (each with fewer than 40 million citizens) got 27 votes each.
The draft constitution would change this, bringing in a complex new double voting system that would weaken Spain and Portugal and give far more power to Germany. Roughly speaking, the old Nice system gave Germany 9 percent of the votes; the new constitution would have given Germany 18.2 percent of the votes - which explains why Germany refused to compromise.
So as the Brussels summit broke up, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told reporters at his post-summit briefing: "It is clear that if we don't manage within the near future to implement the constitutional process set out in the convention (the body that drew up the draft constitution) the consequence can be a two-speed Europe."
French President Jacques Chirac went even further, telling his post-summit briefing that the idea of setting up a 'leading team' of countries prepared to forge ahead with much closer integration would be "a good solution. It would allow Europe to advance faster and better."
This idea of 'core Europe', or the German term Kern-Europa as it is known in EU jargon, is not new. It was first raised a decade ago by two leading German Christian-Democrats, Wolfgang Schauble and Karl Lamers. German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has repeatedly warned the other EU states that a failure of the constitution would leave France and Germany with little option but to strike out on their own. And Belgium and Luxemburg would almost certainly join them.
France and Germany already assign their officials to the private office
staffs of one another's ministers and regularly hold joint cabinet meetings. And two senior EU officials, Commissioner for Enlargement Gunther Verheugen (a German) and Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy (a Frenchman) have jointly proposed a virtual merger of the two governments with cabinet-level officials from France and Germany meeting on a weekly basis. They also suggest joint ministries and joint sessions of each country's parliament that would determine foreign policy, defense and taxation and budgets for the two countries.
These visionary plans are no longer entirely fanciful, although there are deep divisions between Paris and Berlin over highly important issues like the future of Europe's lavish agricultural subsidies, attitudes toward NATO and the U.S., and a lingering German suspicion that France simply wants to recruit Germany's economic weight behind a geo-strategic vision directed from Paris.
Moreover, "Kern-Europa" remains a high-risk gamble that could destroy the current EU. Many of the other EU countries, led by Britain, with backing from Sweden and Denmark (whose populations have already voted in referendums against joining the euro currency) would not happily trail along in the Paris-Berlin wake. Some of the new member states from Eastern Europe, who defied Paris and Berlin to join Britain and the U.S. in the Iraq war, have not escaped from being satellites of the old Soviet Union in order to become underlings in a Franco-German super-state.
They might, and there are Conservative politicians in Britain prepared to argue that they should, demand a stiff price for approving such a divisions of the EU into fast and slow lanes. They could demand an end to the EU's costly and controversial Common Agricultural Program (which France stoutly defends), freedom from the more intrusive EU regulations and an end to the EU's monopoly on all its members' trade negotiations.
This would allow the more open economies like Britain to explore joining the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, Canada and Mexico, while also taking advantage of continued free access to EU markets. In short, they could demand that the price of a Franco-German core Europe would be to allow the slow-speed members to scale back their version of Europe into a free trade zone far more open to the rest of world and bound together by the traditional NATO security system. This would be a Europe rather more to the liking of London and Washington than the current grandiose visions in Paris and Berlin. But the irony would be acute if the 'core Europe' plan divides the continent all over again just as it was supposed to unite, with the eastern European countries that were locked behind the Iron Curtain scheduled to join the EU on May 1 next year.
Martin Walker is the Washington bureau chief for UPI