17 May 2013
Some Europeans have their gaze fixed on Malmö at the moment, where the Eurovision Song Contest is being hosted. Though, it might be worth paying attention to what is going on in London, Paris and Berlin, where different visions of Europe, which we ought to be debating, are developing.
On May 14, the British Conservative Party tabled a bill calling for a referendum, to be held no later than December 31, 2017, on the question: “Do you think the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?” The terms of the debate were set out by Prime Minister David Cameron in January, when he called for a “new deal” between his country and a more flexible EU. In doing so, he unwittingly laid himself open to pressure from the Eurosceptics in his party and from the UK Independence Party, while writing the referendum into law makes it very difficult for him to back out of it. But he also forced his partners to face up to their responsibilities.
On the continent, François Hollande has finally delivered a broad sketch of his thoughts on the union. On May 16, he gave the EU two years to define the content of a political union. “It is a matter of urgency for Europe,” the French president declared. That these two years will bring us to the end of David Cameron’s government is perhaps no accident.
The French president also proposed an economic government for the Eurozone, with a president and monthly meetings, as well as “a new stage of integration with a fiscal capacity given to the Eurozone and the possibility, gradually, of raising loans.”
It remains to be seen what Germany will propose. And that will have to wait until September 23 and the outcome of the German elections. Angela Merkel seems securely entrenched in the Chancellery, but the country hasn’t heard the last from the Red-Green alliance.
This perhaps explains why the head of the Social Democrats, Peer Steinbrück, also came out with his own vision of Europe on May 14. The programme envisages a stronger European Parliament, which would participate in European Council meetings, and the transformation of the Commission into a government that eventually will be elected and accountable to Parliament.
And Angela Merkel? One year ago the Chancellory expressed its desire to see the Commission play the role of a government and the council of heads of state or government play the second chamber of parliament with reinforced powers. More recently, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble repeated that the banking union, considered a crucial element for the stabilisation of the Eurozone, would not go ahead without a new European treaty. He is therefore expected to know what Merkel is proposing these days.
François Hollande's speech was received cautiously in Berlin, where a gesture from Paris, whose voice has often been hard to hear over the past year, was expected. But no Franco-German initiative is anticipated before the end of the year, when we will know if Hollande and Merkel are condemned to work together for a few years more, or if a Franco-German axis with the Social Democrats may be possible.
The hardest part will come afterwards, when this potential vision will have to confront the vision of the British – and when it will have to confront the reality of European opinion as well. From this point of view, this is another Franco-German initiative that can – and must – promote a concrete vision of the future of Europe: that one that must be put forward by the next European summit, to tackle youth unemployment. We'll certainly be debating that.