Ides of March

IN LESS than a fortnight Berlin will be rolling out the red carpet for what surely must be a momentous event — the 50th birthday bash to commemorate the founding of the Treaty of Rome that paved the way for the European Union as we know it. Observers from Mars would rub their eyes in amazement at all that has been achieved in the past half-century — easily the best in Europe’s existence.

By M N Hebbar

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Published: Tue 13 Mar 2007, 9:03 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:19 AM

What better occasion then for German chancellor Angela Merkel to play the perfect hostess as chair of the European Council that she assumed on January 1 and combine her finely honed political instincts with her power of quiet persuasion to reinvest some meaning in and give back a sense of purpose to the EU after two years of "pausing for reflection" following the Dutch and French No votes to the EU constitutional treaty. She has the opportunity to point the way forward with honesty and a sense of realism.

There is more. As Germany demonstrated during the recent European summit, it has put, even if belatedly, climate change at the top of its agenda. Not that Germany is a late convert to the cause. In fact, Germany has long taken the environment seriously and established environmental standards that the rest of the developed world has strived to emulate. Few would remember that Chancellor Merkel, ensconced in a chancellery that is powered solely by renewable energy, was also Germany’s lead negotiator for the Kyoto agreement, as Helmut Kohl’s environment minister in the 1990s.

However, among Ms Merkel’s long list of difficult tasks, the most problematic will be drafting a road map for revising the European constitutional treaty - one of the goals of her six-month EU presidency. She made this clear in a keynote speech in the Bundestag when she reiterated that the Berlin declaration that will emerge from the EU’s birthday bash and the EU constitution were inextricably linked. If conditions in Europe 50 years ago led to rebuilding Europe and laying durable foundations for prosperity, this wealth needed now to be adapted to a EU that has burgeoned to 27 member states. One can hardly fault the argument.

To be fair, this declaration will not seek to solve the question of the EU constitutional treaty that will be on the table at the G-8 summit of industrialised nations, which Ms Merkel also chairs in June, but prepare the basis for agreement by stressing the common ground between all EU member states. The text will be "readable" and inclusive, spelling out challenges rather than offering solutions, she reminds the EU.

However, the Berlin exercise is not without controversy. The euro is likely to be mentioned alongside the EU’s other achievements - something Britain and some other non-eurozone members oppose. Getting global agreement on a post-Kyoto accord will call for tough bargaining to persuade all EU members to agree on binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, backed up by a firm commitment to raise renewable energy production to 20 per cent of the total by the same date. Success in this difficult task will carry Ms Merkel’s imprint as EU emission pledges coalesce into firm commitments in December at the United Nations climate conference in Bali, for a broader follow-up treaty to the Kyoto pact when it expires in 2012.

Ms Merkel is also looking hard as a leader of the G-8 at "outreach" programmes in climate change with China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa so as to provide the successor agreement to Kyoto with possible regional schemes that would eventually force the world’s biggest polluters to put a single price on carbon emissions. She is known to view trade-able emission certificates as the most sensible instrument to reduce CO2 emissions and a market-friendly one at that.

Other difficult decisions, including market liberalisation, are being postponed. There are deep differences among EU members on the future role of nuclear energy. Ms Merkel’s own government is split down the middle on that score. But a clear decision on climate change will be an important signal to build on it further.

Nevertheless, EU leaders gathering in Berlin would be advised to give more than a passing nod to harsh realities. The French, now that they no longer control an enlarged Union, are unwilling to relinquish their way of life. The Germans, left on their own, would vote not just against the constitution but for the return of their cherished Deutschmark as well. And the bureaucrats in Brussels seem deaf to the rising clamour of national identities as they are blind to the continent’s diversity of economic and political cultures.

The flawed assumption here has been that member states are similar in their interests and policies and that their varied needs or protests can be overridden by negotiations in closed political circles. But it stands to reason that it is this very diversity that will determine and contribute to the nature, depth, and speed of integration. Nor can one ignore the damage inflicted by a premature, politically inspired euro on a closer economic union. And the imposition of an ill-conceived European constitution is similarly indicative of the futility of constructing a political union with existing blocks. There are lessons to be learnt here.

The challenges facing Ms Merkel have been further amplified by changes elsewhere. France - traditionally Germany’s close EU partner - is in the throes of a bitter presidential election campaign, which has removed Paris, at least for now, as an active partner. Britain’s Tony Blair, with whom Ms Merkel enjoys a close and constructive working relationship, is heading for the sunset as he nears the end of his time in office. So an extremely rigid stand will be counterproductive.

Any new constitution will have Europe’s opposition politicians screaming for votes.

Ms Merkel is noted for her pragmatism. And she has displayed a characteristic penchant for debating the fine - often very fine - print of how Europe should go about saving the planet. She is unlikely to be swerved by the odds or the magnitude of the obstacles on the way. The Lady is not for turning. Does this catchphrase ring a bell?!

M N Hebbar is a Berlin based writer

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