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Monday, 30 April, 2001, 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
Schroeder's challenge to the EU
Joschka Fischer and Gerhard Schroeder
Until now Fischer (L) was the mouthpiece for EU reforms

By Justin Webb in Brussels

The Germans, in matters of government as in other areas, are keen on order.

They like to be able to see who is meant to be doing what - which powers are to be vested in which institutions and what the relationship between those institutions might be.

For many years now, Germans of various political persuasions have wanted a kind of European constitution, in which all these matters are settled.

Germany has won from her partners the right to hold a constitutional conference in 2004. The internal party document which was published on Sunday causing great upset among Euro-sceptics appears to be Chancellor Schroeder's view of the route that conference should follow.

Schroeder's colours

As such it is of course of huge importance - not because the ideas contained in it will necessarily be German government policy, still less that they will be adopted by other European governments.

Gerhard Schroeder
Gerhard Schroeder: blueprint for European executive
But the Chancellor is Chancellor and in the past has allowed his foreign minister Joschka Fischer to float notions about the future of Europe without necessarily backing them himself.

Now it seems Schroeder is pinning his colours to the mast.

So what are those colours ?

The Chancellor's blueprint is not for the withering away of the nation-state.

He wants the governments of Europe to continue to play a central role. He wants the regular meetings of European heads of government - the European Council - to take on the job of upper house of the European Parliament with the specific aim of ensuring that European decisions are kept in check by national political leaders with national mandates.

He also wants the European Parliament to gain in authority, with a bigger role in overseeing the spending of the European Union's budget, including the huge and hugely controversial Common Agricultural Policy.

But all of the above is relatively uncontroversial.

It is the next idea that gets people worried: develop the European Commission - the civil service of Europe - into "a strong European Executive."

Unaccountable powers?

Around Europe, when a phrase like that is heard, alarm bells ring.

Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder
Now Chancellor Schroeder's European partners must come up with ideas of their own
The European Commission is unelected. How, people wonder, could it be given more influence given that its officials are not accountable to anyone?

And if its senior officials were to be elected in the future (one of the possible corollaries of the Schroeder plan) what effect would this have on the power of Europe's national governments?

Some - presumably Schroeder now among them - argue that a strong European Commission is a necessary counterforce to the national governments.

It exists to guard the flame of European-wide endeavour and only a non-nation-based institution can do that.

Alternatives

But plenty more - including the powerful voices of the French and British governments - will have no truck with Europeanism when their own national interests are seen to be subsumed or even matched from Brussels.

So the Schroeder plan for the Commission - effectively turning it into a sixteenth member government of the Union - is deeply controversial and highly unlikely to come to pass.

What it does do, though, is highlight the fact that the debate about the long-term future of Europe has begun.

No nation, and no individual living on this continent, is immune from the changes that will be wrought as a result of the 2004 conference.

If they do not like what Chancellor Schroeder is saying they had better come up with their own plans, and they would be advised to do it sooner rather than later.

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