BRUSSELS: Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister, set the cat among the pigeons when he laid out his vision of a federalist European Union. In Britain, where the idea of European federalism has never been popular, it was predictable that the Euro-sceptic newspaper The Times would denounce Mr Fischer's ideas. But even in France, traditionally committed to its partnership with Germany, he raised a small storm, most sensationally when Jean-Pierre Chevčnement, the French Interior Minister, responded with the bizarre claim that the Germans had not fully recovered from their Nazi past.
These intemperate reactions may seem bizarre. For one thing, Mr Fischer made it clear at the time that he was only expressing his personal thoughts, not speaking officially for the German government. For another, it quickly emerged that his federalist vision was not shared by the French government. Hubert Vedrine, France's foreign minister, described Fischer's ideas as "ambitious", which sounds friendly, but is really diplomatic code for "well-meaning but unrealistic"; and when French and German leaders met a few days later, for a brain-storming session on Europe, they did not endorse the Fischer vision.
Yet it may be a mistake to conclude that this was an episode without significance. Joschka Fischer set out his federalist vision because he believes that some form of federalism will be necessary if the European Union is to continue to function after enlargement to embrace the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. He is not alone in this belief.
Last year, Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission and a former prime minister of Italy, made it clear that he believed enlargement would require radical constitutional reform of the Union. So did a committee of "Three Wise Men", led by Jean-Luc Dehaene, former Belgian prime minister.