The top priority for the European Union at the beginning of the twenty first century must be the historic project concealed beneath the rather boring label of ‘enlargement’. The prize is something that has never been achieved in European history: the building of a liberal order that embraces the whole continent.
To press on with this is now more vital than ever - and more difficult. It is more difficult because public opinion in core countries of the Union, especially Germany and France, and in leading applicant countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, is increasingly sceptical about the process. The electoral success of Jörg Haider in Austria has shown how effectively populist politicians can exploit fears of opening to the east. Enlargement now seems likely to be a contentious issue in the German parliamentary elections, and perhaps also the French presidential election, both due in 2002. And what placates German and French voters may enrage Polish and Czech ones. Making the case for enlargement is a challenge to democratic leadership in the whole of Europe.
With his recent suggestion that Germany should have a referendum on enlargement, Günter Verheugen, the responsible European Commissioner, has posed the right question and given the wrong answer. The question is: Why, over more than a decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall, have the political leaders of western Europe made so little serious effect to convince their peoples that extending the European Union to the newly liberated states of central, south-eastern and eastern Europe is in those peoples’ own vital, long-term interest? And how, belatedly, can that now be done?
However, referendums are not the answer. We say this not because we don’t trust the people, but because referendums in representative democracies are instruments to be used very sparingly, on issues that directly affect the very core of national interests, institutions and identity. That is why France had a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, and Denmark (on 28 September) and Britain (who knows when?) will have one on joining the euro-zone.