Thursday 10 July 2008

Joschka Fischer’s EU avant-garde

Germany’s former foreign minister Joschka Fischer presented his view on EU reform in his Zeit Online column ‘Vive l’Avant-Garde!’ (30 June 2008):

The surrounding world changes at Formula 1 speed, but the Europeans have decided on a snail’s pace through a compromise between Euroskeptics and pro-Europeans.

According to Fischer, the parallel progress of enlargement and deepening has worked only for enlargement. Europe will lose power to decide on its own fate in the world.

The pro-Europeans have to end the compromise with the Euroskeptics, regardless of if a new Irish referendum saves the Lisbon Treaty or not.

The only possibility is a European avant-garde, a group of EU countries willing and able to advance. The willing and able participate, but the others shall not block progress anymore.

The Lisbon Treaty would provide both civilian enhanced cooperation and military permanent structured cooperation, but if the Treaty of Lisbon fails, the pro-European governments and states need to establish an avant-garde group outside the treaties.

The negative consequence of this would be that the community institutions would not develop for a long time, for example in the foreign policy field.

Even if European unity is an important value, it cannot be upheld if the price is permanent immobility or even backward steps. In the middle term the Nice Treaty status quo is a bigger threat to European unity than an avant-garde group.

If the best solution is unavailable, you have to grasp the second best option. The avant-garde group should take on the areas of energy policy, economic and financial policy, foreign and security policy, as well as social policy.

New institutions cannot be created in this way, but the participating countries can better determine their positions with regard to the outside world and, like Schengen, create new structures for integration beyond the treaties.


It worth noticing how silent the EU leaders and the EU institutions are on the hard choices facing Europe. Only free citizens seem to be able to contribute to the discussion with new facts and proposals.

Fischer’s analysis of Europe’s diminishing role in the world is compelling, as is his prescription that something has to be done to break the deadlock, with or without the Lisbon Treaty.

At least three of Fischer’s assumptions require special attention and deeper discussion:

1) The vast policy areas proposed by Fischer require effective action, but without decision-making rules to support decisive action, even a smaller group would become bogged down by the unanimity rule inherent to intergovernmental cooperation.

2) The relations between the core group policies and the regular Nice or Lisbon institutions’ decisions require careful thought. How would it play out? We would, for instance, have situations where a core group has a common position, but the EU does not.

3) Intergovernmental avant-garde groups outside the treaties or based on the Lisbon Treaty would do nothing to enhance the democratic legitimacy and accountability of their actions. Only democratic foundations can ultimately legitimise deeper integration, even if the commendable aim is to enhance the security and prosperity of EU citizens.

Should the integrationist countries realise that they need more than avant-garde groups? Should they finally accept that they need both effective institutions and democratic foundations, if they want to build a functioning Europe?

Ralf Grahn

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