The approach of the intergovernmental conference convened by the European Council at Helsinki once again brings to the fore the problem of enlargement. It is a process that could result in a European Union made up of 27 or 28 members whose economic and social structures would be far more heterogeneous than those of the current 15 member states.
Most European politicians (with the exception of those who see enlargement as a means of transforming the Union into a free-trade area and, as such, support it unreservedly) view these developments with concern. Clearly, equipped with its present institutions and with a membership of 27 or 28, the European Union would be quite impossible to govern, as the more members this kind of union of states has - a union that operates according to the intergovernmental method, in other words, according to a logic of compromise - the harder pressed it will be to establish platforms of consensus. Enlargement on this scale would be a development so traumatic that it would even threaten the future survival of the Union.
At the same time, there can be no escaping the need for enlargement of the Union. The prospect of entering, as equals, a great democratic community undoubtedly played a part in shaping the expectations and motivating the behaviour of the citizens of the countries of central-eastern Europe, both during the historical period in which they broke free from the dominion of the Soviet Union, and subsequently. Failure, on the part of the European Union, to fulfil the obligations it has towards the millions of Europeans who aspire to become part of it would amount to providing grim evidence of its own impotence and ineptitude. And as well as damaging irrevocably the prestige of the Union, and reducing the power of its appeal, this would also have grave repercussions on the balance of power at European and world level.
Rejection of enlargement has thus become an untenable position, besides being one that is founded on the erroneous belief that freezing enlargement would result in maintenance of the status quo in Europe. It would not. While it is certainly true that enlargement of the Union in the absence of the necessary reforms would hasten its disintegration, it must also be recognised that the present intergovernmental method is now making it impossible for the 15-member Union to act. The truth is that in a European and world setting as unstable as the current one, European integration is not a process that can simply be brought to a halt: it can only advance or regress - and a regression of the process would mean a deepening of the Union's incapacity to act and of the democratic deficit of its decision-making procedures and, in the medium-term, throw into crisis the democratic institutions of its own member states, a situation already prefigured by the entry of the Freiheitlichen into the Austrian government.
There is almost universal acceptance, then, that reform of the Union's institutions is a necessary prerequisite of enlargement. And many also agree that even the best of the compromises reached over the so-called Amsterdam "leftovers" (rationalisation of the Commission, extension of the qualified majority voting system and reweighting of the votes within the Council of Ministers) contribute virtually nothing to the search for a solution to the problem. This is the climate in which the idea is once more emerging that the only way to prevent the Union from caving in under the pressure of enlargement is to allow a group of member countries to advance, ahead of the rest. And here we have another example of how blind attachment to national sovereignty results in inappropriate solutions being put forward to meet real needs. In this case, the proposal is for improvement of the mechanism of enhanced cooperation. Provision is already made for this by the Treaty of Amsterdam which rules that some countries can, with the consensus of all the others and subject to the fulfilment of countless conditions, reach agreements which would commit them to a deeper level of cooperation in certain areas. What is proposed, therefore, is a simplification of the procedures set out in the Treaty of Amsterdam in order to facilitate their implementation.
Yet again we see a legal expedient being put forward to circumvent a problem that can only truly be solved through the taking of a radical political decision. It is certainly true that, if the Union is to be saved, a group of countries equipped with real decision-making capacity must, without undermining the rights of the others, be formed within it. But experience has shown quite clearly that it is the intergovernmental method in itself that constitutes the obstacle in the way of the acquisition of such decision-making capacity. And it makes no difference whatsoever whether intergovernmental cooperation is based on the 'variable geometry' model or on a Europe à la carte : the real problem is a different one altogether. What must emerge, within the Union, is a group of countries that are willing to move beyond intergovernmentalism in whatever shape or form, willing, in other words, to form a true federal core - and at this point, it must be made quite clear, given the tendency of many politicians to be quite arbitrary in their use of terminology, that "federal core" can only mean a federal state made up of EU member countries that enjoy a greater degree of interdependence and are, objectively, more interested than the others in continuing along the path that will lead to unification. Only in this way will it prove possible to reconcile the advantages of enlargement with the capacity to act and with the democratic legitimacy of a part of the Union and, in the future, of the whole of the Union.
There can be no hiding the enormous difficulties inherent in this design. It presupposes a radical institutional transformation that is destined to meet with bitter resistance and the risk of fractures. But just as the monetary union of 11 countries has become a reality, it too could be achieved; and there is absolutely no reason why the institutions of this federal core should not be compatible with the continued existence of the current Union, and with the maintenance of the acquis communautaire on the part of those countries who will not be able, or will not wish, to be part of the federal core from the outset.
In spite of the objective need for this step, the fact remains that not one of the Union's current member states shows any sign of being willing to take it. The fixation with the preservation of national sovereignty continues to blunt the awareness and condition the behaviour of politicians. But the objective contradictions inherent in the question of enlargement are destined, before long, to erupt and to force some governments at least to recognise the unavoidable need to confront the problem, and to choose between the radical solution that is the creation of a federal core and the ignominious end of the process of European unification.