Just where is Europe headed? That is a question increasingly on European lips.
And as Paris took over the rotating presidency of the European Union this week, French President Jacques Chirac has leaped enthusiastically into a vigorous new debate about the Continent's destiny.
Looking forward to a common constitution whose writ would run from Poland to Portugal, Mr. Chirac has pledged that France's six-month leadership of the EU will pave the way for a "great transition" toward a much grander, deeper, and more united union.
But his vision of a few pioneer governments leaving other EU members in their wake as they drive toward ever closer integration has left some of his neighbors distinctly wary of being relegated to second-class status in this "new Europe."
"We would agree that Europe should be a Europe of member states," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said last week in a BBC interview. "We would also, though, stress it's got to be a Europe of member states who are equal states."
British doubts, however, seem unlikely to stem the flow of thoughts about Europe's future shape and purpose that German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer unleashed in May, with a controversial speech setting out the path to a federal "United States of Europe." "This was a debate that was ready to explode, and which was badly needed," says Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute for International Relations, a Paris-based think tank.
It is a debate precipitated by a blunt fact. The European Union, currently made up of 15 nations, is on the verge of almost doubling in size. When all 13 applicants from Central Europe and the Mediterranean have joined, the EU will be home to 500 million citizens.
Institutions designed for the six founding EU members would simply collapse under the weight of nearly 30 members. Reforms, everyone agrees, are unavoidable. But the ideas now being aired about the longer-term future serve a broader purpose. For some time now, Europe's leaders have seemed bogged down in the petty details of running the union, never raising their eyes from the daily grind.
Europeans also increasingly resent the EU's unelected government in Brussels, the European Commission, which has a reputation for being distant and incomprehensible. The result, worried Mr. Fischer in his May speech, is that the "process of European integration is being called into question by many people; it is viewed as a bureaucratic affair run by a faceless, soulless Eurocracy in Brussels - at best boring, at worst dangerous."
Fischer's response - calling for the eventual foundation of a democratic European federation - "has reinstilled a sense of ambition in everyone's mind," says Mr. Moisi. "He has reminded people that being a European means more than simply debating details. It's about building a long-term project."
France intends to lay the institutional foundations for that building in a new EU treaty due to be signed next December in Nice, at the end of an intergovernmental conference. That conference has been called to reform the EU to keep it workable even with more members, through such novelties as weighted voting systems, curbs on veto power, and so on.
Key to these changes will be the idea of "strengthened cooperation" among a small group of members that want to move ahead faster than others, allowing them to harmonize their policies and pool their sovereignty in one field or another, even if a majority of EU states were not ready for that.
Without such a provision, French officials argue, the EU's integration process would be slowed to the pace of the slowest and least enthusiastic member. With it, the stage would be set for the sort of "pioneer group" that President Chirac envisages.
This has much in common with Fischer's idea of a "center of gravity," an avant-garde group of countries that could create their own nucleus and draw up an embryo constitution for a future federation. But it is deeply disturbing to countries such as Britain, whose ambivalence about joining the euro, the common European currency, is hindering London's ambitions to be a leading force in Europe. "I think it would be very damaging for Britain if there was an inner core in Europe and we accepted we are not in the inner core, we were in the outer rim," Mr. Cook said in his BBC interview.
In a clear effort to assuage British skepticism about a federal Europe, both Chirac and Fischer have been careful to underline that they do not envision a European constitution, or a federation, creating a European superstate that would replace existing nation-states. "Only if European integration takes the nation-states along with it into such a federation ... will such a project be workable," Fischer argued.
But even as public discussion gets under way in Europe about where the Continent's borders lie, what it stands for, and all the other issues that a constitution might resolve, little Austria has reminded everyone starkly of the practical obstacles to agreement on such abstract questions.
It was precisely in order to strengthen the concept of "European values" that Austria's fellow EU members imposed a diplomatic freeze on Vienna earlier this year, to show their displeasure at the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party in the government. This week, Austria hinted that unless sanctions are lifted, it will block any agreement on EU reforms at the Nice summit in December. Somewhere between upholding their values and keeping the EU's wheels turning, European leaders will have to find a path into the future.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society