Politicus: Fischer's shifting vision of Europe's grand future

Posted in Europe | 14-Apr-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

BRUSSELS - A European Commission official who works sometimes with Joschka Fischer was talking last week about his respect for the German foreign minister's intellect and energy. He also said, just as respectfully, that Fischer was a rare creative thinker in policy terms who continuously came up with good ideas, some meant for the real world, some not.

The remark was ambiguous, scrupulously diplomatic. But it pointed clearly enough to the period of the past six weeks in which Fischer, obsessed neither by absolute coherence nor the European Union's more daily difficulties, has been laying out a design for the future of Europe.

Basically, Fischer has said that an EU of 25 members must now reach a third strategic dimension beyond what he defines as the two initial historic and pragmatic phases of its development. He calls for an EU that is a "strategic" entity, a continental-type power comparable to the United States, India, China or Russia, able to punch its weight in confronting threats to stability in the world.

This involves dumping as outdated Fischer's earlier idea of an expanded EU led by small pioneer groups. And it also means opening the way for the EU's rapid inclusion of Turkey, which Fischer says has "a bridging function" between Europe and Islam in an ominously described "structure of conflict of the 21st century."

In response to this thinking, presented piecemeal in a series of German newspaper interviews, Fischer gets an extremely careful hearing as a marquee player in European affairs who has flirted with a candidacy for the post of Europe's first foreign minister. Add in Germany's stature, Fischer's position as head of one of the German government's two coalition parties, and a speech he made in 2000 at Humboldt University in Berlin regarded as an intellectual high-water mark in defending the federalist and integrationist view of the EU's future he has now trashed.

And enter, too, the less than overwhelmingly precise path to realization that can accompany Fischer's strong, interesting ideas.

In turning away from the pioneer groups that he once urged as a means of saving an expanded Europe from a bog of immobility, Fischer has implicitly bargained for conflict with France, which regards them as means of sustaining its hand on a European leadership role. Fischer has denied any less faith in the German-French relationship - although a recent German interviewer said he was struck by how often Fischer now refers to the relationship in the imperfect tense, and places it in "the historic dimension" of his European construct. With his insistence on the need for a European strategic dimension, and combating "jihadist terrorism" as the prime totalitarian enemy of democracy worldwide, the head of the formerly pacifist Greens party rather startlingly makes no reference to how Europe could increase its military capacities to achieve such a strategic status.

And what of strategic Europe's relationship with America? Could Fischer be refashioning France's view of a multipolar world in which Europe would become a counterbalancing force to the United States?

That's not clear. But it's probably not the case, because Fischer says that, in responding to the strategic threat in the Middle East, the EU has a chance at renewing a real trans-Atlantic partnership. No small-gauge detail-picker, Fischer files that task under the heading Reconstruction of the West.

Fischer argues that the undertaking involves bringing Turkey into the EU to deal better with the security issues at the edge of Europe's "neighborhood." This step, he says, would mean a "strategic victory" against terrorism. But last week, Michel Barnier, the new French foreign minister, with an eye on another possible defeat for President Jacques Chirac's neo-Gaullists in the June European Parliament elections, insisted that "there's no question of Turkey's entry in the middle or short term."

In setting out his views on Europe in a series of conversations with the German press, Fischer's response to this kind of resistance to Turkish membership, favored by the Americans, has been to counter that if the EU wants to be a Christian club, it should "say so and accept the consequences."

But it is in reversing field on his old acceptance of a concept of pioneer groups within the EU, which in effect endorsed a two-speed institution split between haves and have-nots, that Fischer sounds the most determined.

"If you can imagine a for a moment a Little Europe - France, Germany and a couple of other countries - where decision-making is easier, how would we organize the rest of Europe?" he asks. "As a backyard? The greater decision-making capacity of a Little Europe would turn out to be only an appearance. Little Europe-thinking just doesn't work anymore; the conditions have changed."

Because abandoning the idea of pioneer groups goes most directly to the daily affairs of institutional Europe, and to the very touchy perspective of how the expanded EU manages with or without a new constitution, most of the nervousness about Fischer's ideas has accumulated around this point. A European foreign policy or strategic role is far enough from reality so as to provide less stress to functionaries and national officials. As he did in 2000 at the time of Fischer's Humboldt speech, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been listening without much comment to his coalition partner's vision. In a German political arena where "the vision thing" is admired, and where Schröder has never attempted transmogrifying into visionary mode, leaving Big Global Thoughts to Fischer seems to be an important element in a relationship that has undergone tense periods of silence. Schröder is described as admiring Fischer's facility with words and ideas, while considering him capable of moving from one extreme to another. The chancellor, according to an "authoritative" but nonattributed quote that made its way into the German press, regards a two-speed, core Europe not as a "strategic concept," yet as a possible future consequence of Europe's complicated enlargement - "if the deepening process isn't as successful as necessary, quite simply because it has to happen."

At the same time, Schröder, in very literal terms, owes his coalition's re-election in 2002 to the Greens. And that makes Vice Chancellor Fischer, a foreign minister with sweeping viewpoints, a man to be taken seriously indeed. Belgium, the EU headquarters' host country as well as that of NATO, has produced a number of leaders who have played significant roles in the EU's development. From time to time, it befalls the Belgian press to single out a politician not quite living up to the example of, say, Paul-Henri Spaak, a central figure in the early years of the European Community. Last week, according to news service reports, the Flemish-language newspaper De Standaard described Defense Minister André Flahaut as "unfit or incompetent." Flahaut was accused of approving publishing as fact an assertion in a ministry magazine that the world's worst genocide involved the death of 15 million native North Americans from 1492 and suggesting, according to De Standaard, that the killing "continues to this day."

The newspaper said the United States was effectively blamed by the Defense Ministry for the genocide. Its spokesman, Gerard Vareng, denied any anti-American message.