Fischer realises that a European federation cannot spontaneously emerge overnight. It needs to be pushed forward by a few determined states; `a centre of gravity', as he put it. Fischer does not use the terms such as `hard core' or `a two-speed' Europe that produced hefty debates and conflicts in the past. However, most commentators notice that a difference between a core group and a centre of gravity is only rhetorical. As M. Hubert Védrine, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, put it in his open letter to Fischer: 6
Over the past few weeks several present or former European political leaders proposed that the countries determined to make a big leap forward into political integration should create a `hard core' or a `vanguard' together. This is tantamount to accepting the idea, that was challenged vehemently for a long time, of a two-speed Europe. This is the line you adopted, after Jacques Delors and others, by suggesting the creation, in stages, of a centre of gravity that would one day become the core of a future federation.
The discussion about the pros and cons of an avant-garde core is usually conducted from a Western European perspective. However, the picture is much clearer from an Eastern European perspective, leaving little room for any debate. The idea of a European hard core is viewed as an East European nightmare because it condemns the post-communist states to an inferior peripheral status.
The concept of `core' goes hand-in-hand with the concept of `periphery'. They are like two sides of a coin that cannot be separated. Those countries that form the core are on one side of the coin, while those unwilling or unable to join the core are on the other side. Clearly, the contrast between the core and the periphery does not need to be great; but if there is little difference between the core and the periphery, why does one need a core in the first place? Fischer insists that he intends to overcome the division of Europe, but the creation of a core group cannot but create a division between the `ins' and `outs'. This has been well grasped by Robin Cook, the British Foreign Minister:7
We want those countries [i.e., applicant countries from Eastern Europe] to be joining as full members of a Europe of equals, not finding that some other countries have moved on to an inner chamber from which they are excluded.
Great Britain fears a core group for different reasons to those which are arousing fear among the applicant states from Eastern Europe.8 The latter might be willing to join the core group, but may be unable to do so for many years to come; Great Britain might be able, but is unwilling, to join the core group. For Great Britain, access to the integrated system of decision-making is at stake; for Eastern Europeans, the ability to catch up with the centre of prosperity and effective government is at stake. Before the fall of communism, the threat of a core group was often used to prod hesitant integrationists into more co-operative attitudes with regard to agendas set in Paris, Bonn and Brussels. Today, however, the threat of a core group has an entirely different meaning and implications. It is largely about perpetuating the division of Europe between an affluent and stable core, and an impoverished and unstable periphery. 9
Recent proposals suggesting some kind of a core group in the Union resemble similar efforts aimed at Eastern European exclusion put forward a decade ago. On the eve of the European transformation, some Western politicians hoped that integration within the EU could continue unabated among only the most developed European states for a long time. Eastern Europeans have been offered alternative forms of pan-European co-operation, such the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or a European Confederation project launched by the French President, François Mitterand. When it proved impossible to arrest the process of the eastward enlargement, the idea of a core Europe became an alternative strategy to keep the less developed Eastern European countries outside the frame of advanced integration. Fischer's promise that each member of the Union will be welcome to join the core group is not very credible. If everybody can join the core group, there is no reason for having it. The whole point of a core group is to impose even stricter criteria for admission than is presently the case in order to join the existing European Union framework. Needless to say, the post-communist countries already have enough problems in trying to meet the latter criteria for admission.
In short, creation of a core group would undo the greatest benefit of the enlargement project; namely, allowing the less advanced countries of Eastern Europe to join the most advanced countries of Western Europe on equal terms. Joining the Union, but not its newly created core, might well have a positive symbolic meaning for those who have made little progress in meeting the Copenhagen criteria for admission. However, those who champion the meeting of these criteria as a precondition for admission will surely feel demotivated, if not cheated, when told that the centre of gravity, prosperity and peace has moved further away from them. If Fischer truly believes that enlargement is not only unavoidable, but also beneficial for the Union, he should recognise all these negative implications of a core group. He cannot have it both ways, because enlargement and the creation of a core group are largely in conflict.
Supporters of a core group, Fischer presumably among them, believe that it is better to dilute the meaning of enlargement rather than to dilute the meaning of European integration. They argue that paralysing the EU's institutions through a fully fledged enlargement is in nobody's interest, and not least in the interests of Eastern European nations dependent on Western help. Can the Union avoid a major restructuring if it is going to have about 30 very divergent Member States? The solution is a European federation gradually developed by a small group of the most developed and determined countries. Is such reasoning correct? The answer might be either normative or empirical. The former would say what the Union should do, while the latter would try to indicate what the Union is able to do under the current circumstances. As I find it futile to debate on whether a certain model is desirable before knowing whether it is possible, I will leave the normative approach to one side.
One question is whether the creation of a core group is possible, and another is whether the creation of a European federation is possible. I will try to answer the latter question because, for Fischer, a core is not an end in itself, but a means of building a federal European state. Without this ambition, the creation of a core makes little sense. However, the answer to the first question is not predetermined either. There is much evidence to suggest that efforts to create a core group would meet fierce resistance from the current Member States likely to find themselves outside the core. There is also evidence to suggest that a core, when created, would not be likely to work. This is the argument outlined by the Czech President, Václav Havel, in his speech to the European Parliament: 10
The idea that there could forever be two Europes-a democratic, stable and prosperous Europe engaged in integration, and a less democratic, less stable and less prosperous Europe-is, in my opinion, totally mistaken. It resembles a belief that one half of a room could be heated and the other half kept unheated at the same time. There is only one Europe, despite its diversity, and any weightier occurrence anywhere in this area will have consequences and repercussions throughout the rest of the continent.
Fischer apparently agrees with Havel's general evaluation of the situation in the present-day Europe, and yet he suggests building a European federation by a newly created avant-garde group of only few EU Member States.11 Let us examine whether such a federation is a viable project in the post-modern and post-Soviet European setting.
6 `Future of Europe,' a Letter from M. Hubert Védrine, Minister of Foreign Affairs, to Joschka Fischer, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany, Paris, 8 June 2000, an English translation provided by the French Embassy in the UK (internet source: http://126.96.36.199//db.phtml?id=4116). The French President, Jacques Chirac in his speech at the German Bundestag also avoided the controversial term `core group,' and instead used the term, `groupe pionnier.'
7 Robin Cook in an interview for The Times, 29 June 2000.
8 For a detailed analysis of the British position, see Helen Wallace's contribution to this volume.
9 This has been well argued in Jonathan Story's `The Idea of the Core: The Dialectics of History and Space,' (Story 1997).
10 Václav Havel, `Overcoming the Division of Europe,' A speech given to the European Parliament on 15th June 2000, which is available, in electronic form, on the Internet at: http://www.TheEPC.be/Challenge_Europe/text/122.asp?ID=12.
11 As Fischer put it: `Following the collapse of the Soviet empire, the EU had to open up to the east, otherwise, the very idea of European integration would have undermined itself and eventually self-destructed. Why? A glance at the former Yugoslavia shows us the consequences, even if they would not always and everywhere have been so extreme. An EU restricted to Western Europe would forever have had to deal with a divided system in Europe: in Western Europe integration, in Eastern Europe the old system of balance with its continued national orientation, constraints of coalition, traditional interest-led politics and the permanent danger of nationalist ideologies and confrontations. A divided system of states in Europe without an overarching order would, in the long term, make Europe a continent of uncertainty, and, in the medium term, these traditional lines of conflict would shift from Eastern Europe into the EU again.'