Commentary: A United States Of Europe?

It's not every day that a high German official lobs a bomb into the European body politic. But that's what German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer did in a May 12 speech at Berlin's venerable Humboldt University. With as many as 12 new members joining the European Union from Eastern and Southeastern Europe over the next decade, the loosely organized EU must become a more cohesive political federation, Fischer forcefully argued, or risk losing the benefits of a half-century of economic integration. "And that means nothing less than a European Parliament and European government which really do exercise legislative and executive power." There's another way to say this: Fischer is talking about a United States of Europe.

That's a fearsome thought to some Europeans, accustomed to the tradition of the nation-state. So it's no surprise that many commentators sought to devalue Fischer's remarks. Some figured Fischer wanted to revive the sagging fortunes of his Green Party with a splashy speech. Others saw more sinister motives: French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement attacked Fischer's ideas as proof that Germany was not yet cured of Nazism.

But Fischer's point is one all Europeans must face: It's time Europe began thinking seriously about the endgame of integration. For years, political leaders have discussed the future only by way of linguistic contortions and subterfuges--from "subsidiarity" to "variable geometry." In effect, Fischer's bomb explodes the notion that Europe can continue to muddle along as no more than an economic construct. As he asserted, economic integration--the industrial and financial consolidation that has followed the launch of the euro last year--must be accompanied by parallel innovations on the political side.

Fischer's idea of what the Europe of the future could and should look like will resonate for years. For one thing, his is not a lone voice. Indeed, for the first time, even prominent Gaullists such as Alain Juppe, Bordeaux's mayor and a former prime minister, are out in support of Fischer's vision. There are numerous signs that French leaders, happy to have others put the issue on the agenda, gave an advance nod to the speech.

Fischer and like-minded allies are already fielding ideas as to the organization of a federation. A new parliament could have two chambers: Member states might send two or more senators to the upper body, while the lower would consist of members who also sit in their national legislatures. Fischer calls it "a Europe of nation-states and a Europe of citizens."

It's years away, surely. Despite some reforms, the European Commission in Brussels remains an unelected and largely unaccountable bureaucracy: Important political decisions require the unanimous approval of all member states. It's a recipe for inaction. Remember Henry Kissinger's barbed quip? "When I need to get in touch with the Kremlin, I know who to call. When I need to get in touch with Europe, who do I call?" It's as true now as it was during Kissinger's days as U.S. Secretary of State.

No European can be happy with the Continent's political weakness. For one thing, it's the dirty secret behind at least some of the euro's decline: Faced with a cacophony of national voices on this policy and that, no wonder investors have been dumping the common currency. For another, it's impossible to contemplate EU enlargement without doing some new political thinking. Utter paralysis is the alternative.

Fischer's speech may seem futuristic, but he has advanced a logical first step: Nations eager to move quickly on political reform should form a "core group" others can join. Fischer thus teams up with former EC President Jacques Delors, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. All three have recently called for an avant-garde that can form a constitutional convention to hammer out the terms of the federal experiment.

Americans should find this familiar. The first 13 states spent years feeling their way toward what became the U.S.--which was a work in progress even after Washington was elected the first President in 1789. So it will be in Europe. Joschka Fischer has announced an era that promises to be as exhilarating as those formative years in U.S. history.

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