Report Where is the Union headed? (10)

A multipolar union

With countries following their own national agendas, France and Germany vying for the top spot and major decisions being taken in informal meetings, divisions within the EU are deepening, argues Polish philosopher and European expert Marek Cichocki.

Published on 29 July 2010 at 09:13

Gazeta Wyborcza: The EU is changing, the idea of a two-speed Europe is returning. How do you perceive these changes?

Marek Cichocki: I’d be careful with judgements here. Granted, a lot has been happening in the EU recently, which is a paradox because everyone thought that as soon as the Lisbon treaty came into effect, it’d be all peace and quiet. But because of the economic crisis, this happens to have not been the case.

The crisis had begun even before the treaty came into effect…

But still no one expected that the crisis would shake the foundations of the single currency, regarded by the old member states as the main pillar of integration.

Aren’t you afraid of a two-speed Europe where larger and wealthier states will be pushing forward with their economic integration behind Poland’s back?

So far, Germany has been acting as a brake-puller on the various innovations proposed by France. It looks like economic and budgetary coordination will be taking place among all EU member states. Since Nicolas Sarkozy became president, French policy has concentrated on searching for a way to distinguish France from the other member states. Germany, in turn, has all the time been trying to maintain the EU as a whole. And this despite domestic misgivings and reluctance of the citizens who are paying from their own pockets.

But Germany is also changing and becoming more egoistic. Let’s take for example Ms Merkel’s original opposition against a rescue package for Greece and then granting this aid on German terms.

Let me remind you that at the turn of 2007-2008, Mr Sarkozy voiced the radical proposition to exclude the Mediterranean Union from the EU and Ms Merkel forced the French to dilute the idea. The same is happening now with the – rather vague – French idea of an economic government for the eurozone and a special fund for countries with financial problems. Sarkozy tried to spin off those mechanisms from the European structures; the Germans said ‘no’. The French would therefore want to take some things out of the EU, to free themselves of the ballast that some member states represent for them, so as not to have to deal with all of the remaining 26 member states. Germany, in turn, although it’s changing, remains faithful to the principle that an EU of all the member states is fundamental.

I think that in spite of everything the EU is not heading towards what is referred to as a 'hard core' or an 'EU within the EU'. This is not a real threat today. Rather, we are heading towards a kind of EU-a-la-carte [where various member choose the spheres they are interested in]. The largest actors are developing their national or supranational centres of influence within the EU and building their spheres of activity. This is evident in foreign policy where we have a division of roles between France and Germany.

Today, the EU’s greatest problem is its internal and external regionalisation, the emergence of centres and spheres of activity. In addition, certain important decisions concerning the EU are being ‘washed out’ not only of the Commission but also of the Council, which represents the capitals. These decisions are made at informal meetings.

It has always been like this in the EU.

Sure, but now it’s ostentatious. Germany with France are doing this with a certain arrogance towards the Commission. Merkel’s and Sarkozy’s propositions cannot be ignored so they are endorsed instead – with all their consequences.

Is such a privatisation, or nationalisation, of the EU, where the Franco-German tandem operates above everyone else, dangerous for the EU and Poland?

As long as the German elites are able to convince their citizens that it’s necessary to accept Germany’s leadership in the EU, even if it means sponsoring the EU, there is no such danger. Today it is only Germany who, for various reasons, is interested in maintaining the EU as a whole. If only because it is only in such an EU that Germany is able to exercise its leadership and derive tangible benefits from it.

The Franco-German tandem has again become decisive for the EU’s future. Not because the German and French leaders are determining future trends in perfect agreement but because the EU’s future has become looped in Germany’s and France’s conflicting interests.

How does France perceive Europe?

France has decided that Germany needs to be pulled closer to France because of Germany’s growing potential. Such a closer integration can only be possible when an ‘inner circle’ has been created within the EU in which the two countries can play a firmly decisive role. Hence Sarkozy’s idea to identify economic cooperation with the eurozone, in which the two countries play a decisive role. And leave countries like the UK, Sweden or Poland outside that circle.

What should be Poland’s reaction to that?

We should weigh, on the one hand, the need to oppose unfavourable tendencies, such as a weakening Commission, while, on the other, adapting to the new conditions and processes in the EU. We won’t escape the fact, for instance, that Russia has today become a competition field for the EU’s two most powerful member states, France and Germany. Aspiring to co-create the EU’s eastern policy, we must take this into account.

So we should be betting both ways in the EU – on the Commission, and on Germany and France?

You don’t necessarily have to join one of the sides and either fight for the Commission or join Europe’s largest locomotives like a little wagon. I’m not sure whether the political muscle flexing in Berlin and Paris will have positive consequences for the EU. There’s no certainty either that Merkel and Sarkozy can pull Europe out of the crisis.

Aren’t you afraid that if Poland remains distanced towards all this, it can miss important processes?

Poland is in a comfortable situation because it has braved the crisis well. Ivan Krastev (political scientist, expert on the Balkans, head of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia) has rightly noticed that Poland doesn’t risk seeing her political status lowered because the Polish economy is in good shape and Warsaw doesn’t have to be asking for financial aid.

But it’s enough for the Hungarian government to drop a hint about its financial problems and investors throw Poland into the same bag as the rest of Central Europe and the zloty starts falling…

This is how the market works. There’s nothing we can do about it. We have a more serious problem in the EU today with the degrading political status of certain member states, while formally all member states are equal. This is dangerous. If you look at history, you could say it’s an explosive mixture. It’s not Poland’s problem, though, but Greece’s, and soon probably also Portugal’s, Spain’s, Bulgaria’s or Hungary’s.

John Monks, head of the European Trade Union Confederation, warns that the crisis and the budgets cuts introduced in response to it by many European countries may lead Europe to a situation like in the 1930s. Then, the crisis bred totalitarian regimes.

The EU project has found itself in a difficult moment. A reevaluation is taking place of the status of the different member states. What is worrying is, for instance, the fact that the inviolability of borders is today becoming a subject of jokes, which was absolutely unthinkable twenty years ago. Let’s take for example the jokes in the German parliament where conservative MPs suggested, half joking, half seriously, that Greece could give away some of her islands in return for the financial aid!

Krastev says straight out that there are countries in the EU that are able to govern themselves and those that are not. We must make sure we don’t upset the EU’s inner balance so that a new form of internal European colonialism isn’t born.

It is turning out today that the older, deeper, and more important division between Europe’s North and South is relativising its shallower and more temporary division between the East and West, a result of 20th-century history. Sometimes the old East-West division is activated when investors, reacting according to the old pattern, throw us into the same bag with Hungary. Sometimes it is the refreshed North-South one, which, as the situation today proves, is more pertinent.

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