After years in the doldrums, the idea of European political unity is being revived. Its resurrection at this point in history seems to fly in the face of logic. The original postwar version of a United States of Europe has long since died. The common Market has long been stagnant in its economic cooperation and is now facing a divisive battle over restructing (i.e., cutting) its enormous food subsidies. And there is real concern that the pressure of the current recession might even undermine the cooperation already established.
Yet West Germany has chosen this moment to push for negotiation of "a political act of European union," as the government spokesman announced Sept 20.
The goal is not a single government stretching from the Atlantic to the Elbe and from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. Rather the West Germans now are urging that the European Community's informal joint foreign-policy-making be institutionalized and expanded.
The aim is to give West Europe more weight in the world's councils. It is particularly important for West Germany because Bonn has not been able in the past to have an effective foreign policy of its own due to the lingering suspicion of Germany after world war II.
Specifically, such joint efforts would include a common policy at the United Nations and a more closely coordinated policy on the Middle East and toward developing countries. To a lesser degree it would involve some coordination on ways to handle the Soviet Union.
Bonn will concentrate its diplomatic lobbying for the new concept over the next two months. It hopes to get an EC commitment to the idea in principle while Britain is still chairman of the European Council and can take some credit for the initiative with an otherwise Europo-phobe British electorate. Britain's six-month chairmanship ends in December.
The whole unlikely idea is Foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher's Brainchild. The cause has not yet been adopted by a rather skeptical Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- as it must eventually be if it is to carry real political clout in Europe. But Schmidt has at least given the notion a general blessing in devoting special Cabinet meeting to it Sept. 18.
The Cabinet (and Schmidt) hedged their endorsement in excluding Genscher's goal of coordinating European security as well as foreign policy. The Cabinet also hedged its endorsement in giving equal weight to Bonn's insistence on a ceiling for its mounting EC payments -- the highest of any member. But the important thing is that Genscher has, in fact, been authorized to negotiate a "political act" envisaging European union.
When Genscher first floated his idea eight months ago, it met with incredulity. The EC was still reeling from one of the recurring British-French feuds. France and Spain were snarling at each other over farm produce, and France was vetoing any early Spanish entry into the Community. The West German negotiator on Ec funding had just bailed out the British with the West German purse -- only to walk into a meatgrinder at home from politicians who were just realizing that West Germany, too, was short of cash.
Unemployment was hitting new levels in Europe. Protectionism was again rearing its head. Mediterranean countries were joining as the 10th, 11th, and 12th members and threatening to strain an administration that was designed for six closely knit members.
A French president who was a master at milking the special French-German relationship was campaigning for reelection and making no promises about future sharing of EC costs. Yet the food subsidies that benefited France the most were eating up a rising two-thirds of the EC budget and threatening to bankrupt the Community and possibly even West Germany.
This very adversity, however, gave birth to Genscher's proposal. He worried that all momentum toward the ideal of a united Europe would be lost in the squabbling. And so his unusual remedy for the threatened decay of cooperation was even more cooperation.
His model was at hand in the little-publicized, unglamorous, but successful "political cooperation" practiced by the EC since the first oil crisis of 1973. Under this title, the nine (now 10, with Greece) EC members have presented a common European position at the UN, and on major regional issues affecting Europe.
If formalized in a treaty, and Genscher would now like to do so, it would give the EC a secretariat and agreed procedures for foreign minister consultations during crises. In one sense his proposal would change little of present practice. But in another sense it could give a major signal that the idea of Europe is not dead after all.