It is a commonplace statement that has become part of any debate on European Union politics: The expansion of the European Union necessitates new development strategies, new decision-making procedures and - probably - new forms of leadership. And the new leadership model is expected to deliver what the EU missed during the Iraq crisis: a vehicle to bridge differences, create unity, provide orientation, create scope for action. That, at least, is the usual lesson.
When the French president, the British premier and the German chancellor met in Berlin on Wednesday to discuss a broad spectrum of issues ranging from labor market flexibility to EU constitutional processes, an invisible figure joined them at the table: the suspicion of their current and future partners that Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder are hoping to create a type of EU directorate. Although it would be an informal institution, it would be able to dictate the pace and direction of EU developments. It is a suspicion that is joined by a strong dose of jealousy in some cases, in particular in the case of the Italian and Spanish governments, which would be all too keen to join this club. When the three major EU powers get together to talk about liberalization, security or EU expansion, the implicit political and economic potential means that this automatically affects the union as a whole, even if the key issues at stake are bilateral. This is why the others fear being dominated. And their insistence on transparency is indeed understandable - they obviously do not want to be marginalized or end up at the receiving end of the reporting chain.
Yet these suspicions are not new. They have been sparked, in particular, by the Franco-German claim to leadership in the EU unification process over the past one to two years. At the latest since the inner-EU conflict over the Iraq war, the other states have contested Chirac's and Schröder's claims. The historic achievement of the Franco-German engine is still honored, but no longer seems to suffice, and acceptance is dwindling for an EU in which Berlin and Paris control draft legislation.
A host of different alliances now take the initiative in various fields. Their proliferation mirrors a gradual delegitimization of Franco-German leadership, which has given way to suspicions of hegemonic aspirations, now also on the part of a tripartite Franco-German-British alliance.
Yet let us look at the real picture. For the moment, these three countries merely fill a vacuum that could otherwise not be filled – not even with well-meant references to institutional traditionalism. In addition, Germany, France and Britain do not share a common vision for the future of the EU. They are driven by pragmatism. And this can prove useful when Berlin, Paris and London try to find a common basis for work and argumentation, be it on military capacity or liberalization.
Everyone eager to avoid the kind of depressing polarization witnessed during the Iraq crisis will welcome the fact that the Franco-German duo occasionally becomes a trio. For some, Blair's presence in this group will serve as a guarantee that continental-integrationist and transatlantic interests will somehow be merged.
It would be exaggerated to call the Berlin meeting an attack on the community. And it would be equally far-fetched to call it a sturdy leadership model for the future. It comes closer to what some people have called a "coalition of the willing."
Two things have been predicted for this big EU: It will be more "Atlantic," and its "intergovernmental" character will increase. In light of the discussions over the EU constitution, one cannot but agree with the latter assumption. And the network of bilateral initiatives is also likely to increase – which is also an expression of community institutions whose power is limited and is apparently supposed to remain limited. An informal leadership offer from the big three is less than a targeted decision-making process in which all are involved. But it is more than just a power play on the part of Germany and France, no matter how much this feeling may be created at times.