Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The winds of change

Despite the best efforts of the BBC, which is desperately trying to stoke up some enthusiasm, the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, to be celebrated by the "colleagues" in Berlin on Sunday, is looking to be the non-event of the half-century.

But it is not only the lack-lustre performance of the EU in the celebrations department which seem to suggest a certain lack of confidence in the project. There are other clues, slender perhaps but which could suggest that the tectonic plates are moving.

One such is a piece in the IHT about the Airbus A400M military airlifter. Once touted as a key link in its strategy to create a unified military force independent of NATO and the United States, the paper says, the project has become more a symbol of an evolving trans-Atlantic security relationship than of an emboldened EU trying to emerge from the American security umbrella.

If that is the case, then it represents a major shift in the ambitions of the European Union. The A400M was to be at the heart of an EU joint airlift command, with Germany and France already committed to becoming its founder members, so we may be seeing a recognition that the process of European defence integration has stalled.

It could be that too many of the EU members (and particularly the UK) are lined up alongside the United States in prosecuting the "war on terror". Those members are too busy to be enthusiastic about putting any energy into developing a European Rapid Reaction Force that is focussed on a mythical enemy and unspecified threats.

Hinted at in my earlier piece, we did not expect to get such early confirmation, with defence secretary Des Browne committing to send more helicopters to Afghanistan. "I do believe that we need more helicopters. I want the option to provide more to operations to increase the flexibility commanders have," he is cited by The Daily Telegraph as saying, adding: "I have no doubt that if I can get them more they will find good ways of using them. I will probably have more to say about this in the not-too-distant future."

The implications of this are far more profound than the media has even begun to realise. Despite the attempts to paint a picture of doom and glom in Iraq, which my co-editor has noted, the situation is far from unpromising. Even the Telegraph in yesterday's leader was forced to concede that there were "signs of hope".

At a European level, this does suggest that the EU, under the tutelage of Chirac and with the support of Schröder, backed the wrong horse. By failing to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has lost more influence that it has gained.

That this is reflected in a loss of self-confidence might be indicated by another issue, the unexpected turn-around in the long-standing dispute with the United States over Airbus subsidies.

There was a time when the EU would have relished the fight with the US, just for the sake of it, but the Gulf Daily News is now telling us that it is suing for peace, seeking to bring the dispute to a rapid end. Not least of the reasons it the fear that while the two aviation giants of Airbus and Boeing battle it out, China sneaks in, having approved a plan to build large passenger aircraft, and takes the market from them both. For once, the trans-Atlantic squabble is being overshadowed by a greater threat.

China probably features somewhere it the EU’s latest move on its other great project, the Galileo satellite navigation system. As of yesterday, the EU commission announced that it would consider handing responsibility for the system to a public body if the consortium of companies charged with building it falls.

Since that is more than an outside possibility, and a public body would almost certainly fail to attract the financing that would enable the system to be commissioned, we are perhaps looking at the failure of the EU’s largest and most ambitious project to date, an outcome which, according to England Expects the commission itself seems to be predicting. Already shaky, one could then see the Union's self-confidence plummet.

Putting all this together, with some of our previous ruminations, and then drawing the conclusions we have may be a case of adding two and two to make five. But there is another straw in the wind, again courtesy of England Expects, who predicts that there will be no "road map" for the EU constitution in the Berlin declaration on Sunday. Effectively, that will mark the last rights for a project that has had more resurrections than a Wembley stadium full of Lazaruses.

It will we believe, also mark the end of the European Union's ambitions to become a political rather than an economic union. Fifty years on, it has lost its way. There will not be another fifty years. The winds of change are blowing too strongly.


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