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Europe's strategic choice

The EU summit at Laeken should set out the options after enlargement, write Gerard Montassier and Keith Richardson - Dec 14 2001 00:00:00

On Friday at Laeken Europe's leaders meet to inject fresh impulse into the "deeper and wider debate about the future of the European Union" launched a year ago in Nice. But rather than seek to resolve those issues now, the summit should pose some leading questions and so prepare a debate in which Europe's citizens can make the strategic choice between a conservative and a reformist future.

The advantage of the conservative agenda, limited to minor improvements in working methods, is that it would be easy to negotiate and pose few problems. It would be the right one to choose if, during the great debate, public opinion showed that it was satisfied with the EU as it works today and that it had no further ambitions, no hunger for democratic control.

If Europe's citizens are content to see the EU after enlargement reduced to little more than a free trade area, with decision-making paralysed by complex voting procedures, with monetary union unguided by proper economic or financial authority, with the common foreign policy at the mercy of Washington, a modest package of institutional reforms in 2004 is appropriate.

But if the public is dissatisfied with the Union's methods and results and sees them as ill-suited to an un-stable and insecure world, it is right to think in terms of more significant changes.

This is not yet a time for detail. There is more than one way to build a more effective Europe, to strike a balance between the Union's institutions and to combine the merits of both community and inter-governmental approaches. But all that is for later.

The priority for Laeken is to propose strategic goals for the new, enlarged Europe, to invite the public to debate them and the convention of political representatives to examine how to achieve them.

At the heart of a reformist programme must be the fundamental political issues of leadership and democracy. The EU could be made to function well wherever authority was placed - but it cannot work if authority is so fragmented that, in effect, it exists nowhere, as is the case today. If people want the EU to protect their interests effectively, they have a right to know who is in charge, to be told what is being done on their behalf and by whom and to use their votes to change the leadership if it does not perform. Anything less would be unworthy of a democratic society and there is no reason not to demand of the Union the same democratic standards that we expect from the member states.

Such reforms should be built around seven strategic goals:

* An elected leader of the Union - a president universally recognised as the authoritative voice of the Union, democratically chosen, whether directly by popular vote or indirectly through a reformed parliament. Whether he chairs the Commission, the Council (comprising national heads of state) or any other body depends on where future authority is to reside. What matters is that there is one president to call the shots, not two.

* Some form of government - an executive headed by the president, with full and continuing responsibility for the management of all EU affairs within the treaty limits, including full budgetary responsibility. In other words, an executive stronger and more democratic than the Commission, better organised and with greater continuity than the Council.

* A clear line of democratic control to make the leadership accountable to voters, so that people can recognise that what the Union does reflect is the choices voters have made. The feeling of remoteness and alienation from EU decision-making must be ended.

* Substantial changes to ensure that the European parliament can win the confidence of voters and become the true focal point for EU policy debates.

* Equal rights for all Union citizens, based on the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Voting rights in the parliament and Council to depend directly on population, by a clear mathematical formula, and never again to be the subject of personal bargaining by heads of government.

* The political structure of the Union to be set out in a constitutional document in terms that every voter can understand.

* Formal recognition of an inner core of those member states that wish to proceed to closer integration, while remaining open for other states to join when they are ready to do so.

For once, Europe is approaching the process of reform with time in hand, with two years to go before the Irish government hosts the 2004 conference. There is time to map out the pros and cons and allow a consensus to develop. But the strategic framework has to be set at Laeken or the process will not work. The real choice is between deciding where we collectively want to go; and drifting. The new world order is unlikely to be kind to drifters.

Gerard Montassier is president of the Foundation for European Civilisation, Paris. Keith Richardson is a trustee of Friends of Europe, a Brussels think-tank

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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2001.