Forging a deeper European unity?

EU leaders meet in Brussels amid battles over a bid to create a European government with a permanent president and its own diplomatic corps.

Europe has desired greater unity for decades – answering Henry Kissinger's famous question, "What's Europe's phone number?"

Friday and Saturday, a major wrestling match is under way in Brussels over creating a more singular, decisive Europe.

The Germans, who hold the European Union presidency until the end of June, say that time is running out to set that Europe in motion – one with a permanent president, a foreign minister, a diplomatic corps, and one able to make decisions without requiring unanimity among what is now 27 disparate states.

Yet deep sentiments in Britain and Poland over ceding power to a central government in Brussels and nagging doubts that every state can ratify a single set of rules have put the Brussels agreement in question.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says bluntly that a failure this weekend among European leaders to agree will forestall the project of Europe for years – and feed inertia and divisions in what is already an ungainly number of members.

"Europe has always moved forward by projects and visions," says Heinrich Kreft, a former German diplomat and senior policy adviser to the Christian Democratic Union. "Now we have the feeling that things are falling apart, and that if we don't act now to bring the 27 together, Europe will fall behind. This is a very crucial time. You could end up with two groups going different ways."

In 2004, all EU members signed the Rome constitution to create what is sometimes called a "super Europe." But the effort foundered when France and the Netherlands voted against it in popular referendums. Progress was impossible until after the French elections were decided this May.

New French president Nicolas Sarkozy seems confident he can help Germany restart the European project. The German-led plan is not being freighted with the word "constitution," but is called a "treaty" about "institutional reforms." It is designed to be ratified by national parliaments rather than by popular referendums – thought to be dicier as a sell.

Chancellor Merkel wants a six-month timetable, a "treaty" whose ultimate goal is to set reforms in place, so that the 2009 European elections would take place under new rules. Europeans would elect a federal parliament at that time – one with more clout.

Yet despite Merkel's push, it is not clear whether Europe's leaders can find agreement at the meeting, expected to end Saturday. The Germans had been under the impression that British Prime Minister Tony Blair would pave the way in Britain; but there has been a striking lack of preparation among ordinary Britons for the kind of sweeping changes that would be presented to them. Britain is not ready to give immigration and foreign policy, for example, over to the EU.

An EU with 27 members working under rules designed for half that number is akin, as one Paris commentator put it, to a computer "using an old 20th-century operating system for 21st-century demand – it is too slow."

Balking at strong federal center

On a continent with strong national identities, difficulties remain in shifting power toward a federal center. That shift is being engineered more by elites unwilling to put the question to a public vote. Even former French president Valéry Giscard D'Éstaing, the plan's architect, says the French are adopting "without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly."

The Poles, backed by the Czechs, want a different formula for internal EU voting, one that favors smaller states. Relations between Germany and Poland carry emotional historical baggage, experts say. And yesterday, Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski linked progress on the talks to reparations from Germany for the Nazi invasion in World War II.

Poland may be not want to be isolated and find itself blamed for a failure. But Warsaw is taking a hard position, as is London. "No one can count on our acceptance. And the extreme solution will be the veto," Prime Minister Kaczynski warned Tuesday.

"Reaching agreement [in Brussels] is a 50-50 proposition," says Bernhard Kampmann, spokesman for the Germany Embassy in Paris. "There is a real possibility that this might not work. Without an agreement on Friday or Saturday, it will be difficult to make the 2009 elections."

Blair proposals could derail effort

For Mr. Blair, the Brussels summit is his last major agenda item before he steps down as prime minister on June 27. It is also a strenuous juggling act, since Blair, who is a prime candidate for the EU presidency, has also been raising some of the most serious derailing counterproposals.

Reuters reported Wednesday that Britain did not want a "foreign minister" title for the EU. The point is not small. British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett said the top EU foreign official should not speak for the body at the UN without Security Council permission, and that a proposed EU diplomatic service should be reduced in scope.

Under the treaty, a "foreign minister" would head external relations for the European Commission, which deals with trade and commercial activity, and the European Council, which deals with military and security questions. Currently, foreign relations are divided between the often competing bodies.

One issue that lurks beneath the surface like an iceberg in a shipping lane are popular referendums. A recent Financial Times-Harris poll points out that "strong majorities" in Britain, France, Poland, and the Netherlands wish to vote on the ambitious German-led treaty. A "no" vote in any of the states could scupper the plan, or create a two-tiered Europe, experts say.

"It won't be the end of the world if the plan fails in Brussels," says Henning Reicke of the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations. "But what we hope for at least is a mandate to keep working."

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