A five-point plan for the Berlin Declaration

7 March 2007

The European Union’s 50th anniversary celebrations later this month provide a golden opportunity for its leaders to send a clear message to the public about its achievements to date and its unique capacity to respond to the challenges which face us in the 21st century. There is, however, a serious danger that the Berlin Declaration - the chosen vehicle for delivering this message - could backfire.

With just three weeks to go, there still seems to be little agreement between national capitals - or even within the German government - on the precise purpose of this exercise: i.e. who the Declaration should be aimed at, what it should contain and - equally importantly - what it should not.

There is just one thing on which everyone appears to agree: namely, that it should be a short and clear text of no more than three pages. But even this may prove to be beyond today’s EU leaders: seasoned observers know all too well how many such texts have started life as short and clear documents, only to become long and obscure ones after tortuous negotiations.

This temptation should be avoided at all costs: one of the criticisms of the Constitutional Treaty was that it was too long and complicated to fire the public’s imagination. This is, of course, true, although it says more about the name given to the treaty than about its content, which prompted obvious (but misleading) comparisons with the US Constitution and raised expectations which it was never designed to meet.

However, the Berlin Declaration provides an ideal opportunity to fill this gap. A powerful text which sums up what the EU is for and why it matters in today’s world could stir hearts and minds at this critical moment in the Union’s history.

The European Policy Centre believes there are some clear guiding principles which should underpin this exercise, and offers this list of five ‘dos and don’ts’ to those responsible for drafting the Declaration:

1. It must be clearly aimed at the general public, and not at political insiders. This must be an exercise in political communication, capitalising on a unique opportunity to draw the public’s attention to the EU’s achievements to date and set out its ambitions for the future. Any attempt to use it for other purposes (specifically to rally support among politicians for a Constitutional Treaty ‘Mark II’) is fraught with danger – and may well fail for lack of agreement among the 27 Member States and their citizens.

2. It must underline the Union’s relevance in the 21st century, explaining why the EU is so well-equipped to respond to the challenges facing us now. Reminding people of the Union’s achievements to date is not enough. The EU needs a new ‘narrative’ which will resonate with younger generations, who understandably take the peace and stability which it has brought to our continent over the past five decades for granted.

3. It must focus on a handful of key messages, such as the EU’s capacity to respond to the challenges of globalisation and its commitment to the principle of solidarity. Trying to address too many issues would fatally weaken its impact: treating it like a Christmas tree to which everyone attaches their favourite baubles will only diminish its glitter.

4. Discussions on the content of the Declaration so far have underlined the biggest danger of all: that instead of highlighting what unites the peoples and countries of Europe, it will expose the differences between them. The debate over what constitutes an EU ‘achievement’, with some arguing that the euro should not even be mentioned, underlines this risk. It should therefore be confined to broad-brush statements of principle which everyone would agree on.

5. While it is important to make reference to the need for an institutional set-up which will enable an expanding EU to operate both effectively and democratically, the Declaration should not make specific reference to the Constitutional Treaty. This would undermine the chances of all Member States endorsing it and could be interpreted by the Treaty’s opponents as an attempt to reintroduce it by the ‘backdoor’, with potentially damaging consequences for the negotiations which will follow.

The 24-25 March anniversary should be a genuine moment of celebration; a time to acknowledge the astonishing progress made in the last 50 years and to look to the future. The Berlin Declaration could help to turn the tide of public opinion back in favour of the European project at this critical juncture, but only by following the approach outlined above. To miss this opportunity would be a tragic mistake.