| BRUSSELS, July 3
BRUSSELS, July 3 After six decades of relentless
if incremental integration, might the European Union be about to
go into reverse?
The "ever closer union" enshrined in EU treaties since 1957
no longer looks so assured after a voter backlash in May's
European Parliament elections and Britain's increasingly
strident demands for a looser relationship with Brussels.
As the smoke clears from the battle over nominating
Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the
gulf between Britain and its EU partners looks wider than ever
although all sides talk of focusing more determinedly on public
concerns about jobs and prosperity.
Brussels insiders say that for all the talk of radical
reform, the 28-nation union is unlikely to change much either
towards deeper integration or to greater decentralisation in the
next five years.
Asked whether the "wind of change" was likely to lead to any
discernible shift in the coming years, more than one official
quoted Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's "The Leopard", a fresco of
stratified 19th century Sicilian society.
"Everything needs to change so that everything can stay the
same," said a Commission veteran with 20 years' experience.
"We've heard the promises many times before. They are always
genuine and probably well intentioned, but the reality is
different. Things don't change just like that."
Since the creation of a coal and steel community among six
countries in the rubble of World War Two, the objective has been
to unite Europe's nations economically and politically to
prevent a return to conflict.
Through waves of expansion, including the addition of 11
east European states since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the
union has grown to 28 countries comprising 500 million citizens,
all part of a single market with a swathe of common rules.
The euro single currency, launched in 1999 and now used by
18 member states, is perhaps the greatest symbol of Europe's
determination to forge a common future.
But the last decade has called into question the overriding
principle of ever closer union.
Founder members France and the Netherlands voted down a
proposed EU constitution in 2005. A debt crisis that began in
Greece brought the euro zone close to collapse in 2012, and
anti-EU populist parties scored stunning gains this year.
The EU has seldom suffered such a deep identity crisis.
At the forefront of the doubters is Britain, an awkward
member of the club since 1973, with a population mistrustful of
Europe and a prime minister determined to renegotiate its
relationship with the European Union.
In January last year, Cameron launched his campaign for
fundamental change, including erasing the common aim of "ever
closer union", etched in Europe's founding treaty since 1957. He
promised to put the result to an in/out referendum in 2017.
"We understand and respect the right of others to maintain
their commitment to this goal," he said. "But for Britain - and
perhaps for others - it is not the objective."
The Dutch government, an ally of Britain's on many European
issues, took a similar stand a few months later, saying the
time of 'ever closer union' in all policy areas had passed.
The oft-quoted analogy is of a bicycle that must keep moving
to stay upright. The question is whether the EU's is slowing
down and starting to wobble, with at least one country set to
JUNCKER AND INTEGRATION
Anyone looking for evidence of a reversal of integration
would have struggled to find it in the debate over the
nomination of the next president of the European Commission,
which proposes and enforces EU laws.
At a summit on June 27, Europe's leaders voted by 26-2 -
with only Britain and Hungary opposed - to put forward Juncker,
the former prime minister of Luxembourg, for the most powerful
A multilingual federalist from the heart of Europe, Juncker,
59, has spent his life advocating deeper EU integration, whether
on labour policy, trade or economics.
Having cut his teeth in the heyday of former German
Chancellor Helmut Kohl and France's Francois Mitterand, he
naturally sees Franco-German cooperation as the motor of Europe.
Yet that engine is no longer firing on all cylinders because
Germany has grown in power while France has weakened, throwing
the central partnership out of kilter.
Whether Cameron's defeat over Juncker was a turning point
toward a British exit, or just another bump in the road, remains
to be seen.
Cameron believes Juncker is the wrong person to overhaul the
way the EU does business and fears the Luxembourger will make it
harder for Britain to renegotiate its relationship.
Juncker has spoken of the need to work with Britain to
resolve its concerns about Europe. EU leaders, keen to avoid
isolating Cameron or forcing the hand of British voters, were
"The UK raised some concerns related to the future
development of the EU," they said in a statement after the
divisive meeting. "These concerns will need to be addressed."
They went on to say that deeper integration could be pursued
by some but not others. There was no mention, however, of going
For Cameron, it goes nowhere towards overhauling how the EU
works day-to-day, or responding to deep-seated frustrations
expressed by many voters in the European elections.
The most that continental partners may be willing to offer
Britain in terms of decentralising EU reforms may be less than
the least Cameron needs to win a referendum.
PLUS CA CHANGE
Cameron wants both to return to London powers he feels were
wrongly surrendered to Brussels, but also to reform EU
institutions and how the policy machinery works.
He claims support from many Europeans who regard the EU as a
distant and clumsy bureaucracy, and from some fellow leaders who
fear the EU will fall further out of favour if it doesn't set
The European Commission has already launched a programme,
called REFIT, designed to simplify EU laws and reduce regulatory
costs. In outgoing Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso's
words, the aim is to make the EU "big on the bigger things,
small on the smaller things."
Thanks to the EU, citizens travel freely and cheaply across
the continent, mobile phone roaming fees will soon be history
and it is possible to work in any of the 28 countries. Yet that
is not enough to convince naysayers who see the EU as a
tentacular bureaucracy that overly interferes in their lives.
Cameron is not alone in demanding the EU become less
intrusive. In one form or another Germany's Angela Merkel,
France's Francois Hollande, Italy's Matteo Renzi, Mark Rutte of
the Netherlands and Juncker have intoned a similar mantra.
Yet there is a three-way divide. Cameron and a handful of
allies see the goal as being "less Europe". The EU should be a
powerful single market and the world's largest trading bloc, but
not much more than that, they contend.
Merkel and some other core European leaders, especially
those in euro area, see reform as leading to a tighter, more
deeply integrated EU, that uses its trading power to exert
global influence, competing with China and the United States.
Then there is a third school that wants to preserve the
status quo and avoid divisive referendums.
Having made no explicit promise to voters, Merkel will be
able to live without treaty change. Cameron, on the other hand,
has promised voters a renegotiation and a referendum, and his
political future is on the line.
If the opposition Labour party wins next year's election,
the prospect of an EU plebiscite may recede for a few years.
But without a substantial renegotiation, it is becoming hard
to see how a referendum would result in anything other than a
vote to withdraw from the European Union.
Cameron appears to recognise it may be an uphill struggle.
"I'm trying to achieve, between now and 2017, something that
I accept is very difficult," he said after his summit defeat. "I
want us to get out of ever closer union."
Conscious of the difficulty of changing a course that has
been set towards one destination ever since the EU's founding,
he added: "You don't turn around a tanker like the EU with
(Editing by Paul Taylor)