Multi-speed Europe edges forward with bank decision

EU ministers meeting in Brussels, 13 December The ECB deal was reached after 14 hours of talks in Brussels

The pressure is off, apparently.

Six months ago, this week's EU summit was going to be the moment to agree upon a "specific and time-bound" roadmap for moving the eurozone towards deeper Economic and Monetary Union.

Now the goals appear to be more modest. The financial markets are calmer.

But the direction of travel - towards closer integration - is still pretty clear.

The summit's draft conclusions argue - albeit in a rather short statement right at the end - that any new steps towards strengthening economic governance will need to be accompanied by "further steps towards stronger legitimacy and accountability".

But what will that mean in practice? The decision, taken in the early hours of the morning, to make the European Central Bank the supervisor for eurozone banks, is a case in point.

How many citizens feel they have any influence over the decision-making of the ECB?

Voter gap

The idea is that as more decisions are taken at a European rather than at a national level, the European Parliament should play a greater role, and co-operation between the European and national parliaments should intensify.

"You need a transnational democracy," argues the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz.

Start Quote

We have to fight to regain trust”

End Quote Martin Schulz President of the European Parliament

"This is the place to give you legitimacy and democratic accountability."

The flaw in the plan is that few people vote in European elections and trust in European institutions in general is at an all-time low. In fact, the number of people voting for their MEPs across Europe has fallen in successive European elections.

"We have to fight to regain trust," Mr Schulz admits.

"One of the biggest problems of European democracy is the gap between the real power and responsibilities of the European Parliament on the one hand, and the public perception of it on the other."

But critics point to a more fundamental issue. They wonder whether anyone has really been consulted about the whole notion of closer integration in the first place.

"Originally we were promised a monetary union, without political or economic union," says Sampo Terho, an MEP from a Eurosceptic Finnish party, the True Finns.

But that of course has not worked, which creates the current dilemma.

"I personally don't think we can move forward anymore in political union without having a referendum," Mr Terho says.

"I feel we have a responsibility to our own people back home to explain what is going on because I am quite certain that they don't even realise how far we are going with this EU project."

Distracted Germans

But the parliament is the weakest of the big three EU institutions. At the moment most of the power lies a short walk away across the European quarter in Brussels, at the headquarters of the European Council.

This is where national governments meet at ministerial and prime ministerial (or presidential) level, and where most of the key decisions about the future structure of the union will be taken.

As ever, the biggest member-states will have the biggest say.

"Either you support more integration or you will end up not in a currency union," argues Michael Meister, the deputy chief whip of the German Christian Democrats and a close ally of Angela Merkel.

There is a sense that many things are being put on hold until after next year's federal elections in Germany but Mr Meister supports the chancellor's broad vision of a political union in Europe.

"Which means," he adds, "you should go ahead pragmatically with the next steps.

"Discuss what a banking union should look like, discuss maybe what a common budget for the Eurozone should look like, what democracy should like.

"And this will show you the way step by step towards closer integration."

When Germany makes up its mind about something in the EU, it tends to get its way.

But other voices are being raised, asking whether such fundamental change is really necessary.

From outside the eurozone, the UK has made it clear that it will play no part. The Czech Republic and others are also sceptical.

And there is disagreement within the currency union as well.

Global race

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte suggested in a recent interview with several European newspapers that some EU powers should be returned to member-states.

Even France is cautious, as it always has been, about German proposals to hand more powers to centralised European institutions in Brussels.

Start Quote

In 30 years none of the European states will be a member of the G8”

End Quote Danny Cohn-Bendit MEP

There are those, however, who argue that all the navel-gazing misses the point.

"In 30 years none of the European states will be a member of the G8," says Danny Cohn-Bendit, a confirmed federalist and one of the European Parliament's most impassioned voices.

"So if we want to have our future in our own hands we have to have a strong Europe. If not we will become an appendix of Russia, of the United States, of Mexico, of China, of Brazil, of India."

Few would disagree that Europe is in a global race. David Cameron certainly would not.

But opinions differ really rather strongly when it comes to deciding how to respond.

Hence the idea of a multi-speed Europe, with the eurozone making moves towards closer economic integration at its core.

There will be plenty of hiccups and plenty of disagreements about strategy. That is hardly surprising because basic issues of national sovereignty are at stake.

But new political structures will eventually emerge, even if it is impossible to predict exactly what they will look like.

In a union well-versed in the art of compromise, expect something less than a federal super-state but much more than a group of countries acting in unison.

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