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LONDON — It is an old American saying that “the pioneer is the one who gets the arrow in his back.” So when President Jacques Chirac of France recently proposed a “pioneering” project to bring France and Germany still closer together at the political level and, as he put it, to “move further and faster ahead,” there was an understandable feeling of unease among his fellow Europeans.

Pioneering, it was felt, could be a dangerous business. Wiser European leaders should follow more cautiously, always trying to balance the aim of uniting Europe into an effective bloc with the aim of preserving strong national identities. Besides, there was a strong suspicion that if France and Germany tried to advance to new and more adventurous levels of cooperation, it would immediately create not a united Europe, but a two-tier Europe, deeply damaging to the European Union.

Nowhere were these anxieties more strongly felt than in London, where the Labor government is agonizingly torn between the desire to be, on the one hand, “at the heart of Europe,” and on the other hand not to get on the wrong side of public opinion, which is highly skeptical of further European integration, on both the financial and defense fronts.

Part of the problem lies in the semantics of European politics, especially in the equation in political leaders’ minds between tighter integration and the idea of a “forward-moving” Europe. Of course, the merging of nation-states, like corporations, and the building of bigger and bigger blocs and institutions to preside over them, can sometimes mean progress. But it can also mean centralization and stagnation. History is littered with examples of top-heavy empires strangling progress with central controls. The stagnation of imperial China or the suffocation of Napoleonic Europe spring to mind.

In the modern world of electronic networks, ideas of centralized bloc-building seem even more inappropriate. Yet most discussion of European development continues to be conducted as though closer integration of nation-states is the only way forward, the only true path to a visionary goal of a single united Europe stretching from the Atlantic to some undefined eastern frontier. That there may now, in the radically changed conditions of global politics and economics, be an alternative forward for Europe is not really entertained.

Every pronouncement, including those of Chirac, is filled with fine phrases about “pressing on,” “going a lap ahead” or “moving forward.” The very phrase “a two-speed Europe” implies that there is a single goal of integration to be reached, and that it is just a matter of how fast the different nations choose to proceed toward it.

What the builders of modern Europe need, and seem to lack, is the courage to show that there are different models for European advance, and that closer integration is not necessarily the best one. It may even mean slowing things down rather than accelerating.

A more flexible set of arrangements, letting some groups of countries go in one direction on some issues, such as defense, crime control and technical cooperation, and some in another direction may be a far more modern way of organizing Europe than old-fashioned bloc-building, with the standardization and central bullying that accompanies it.

This approach may be particularly relevant when it comes to enlarging the EU to include new members such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Estonia, with many more after that.

The enlargement process is stuck just now precisely because applicants are being asked to conform too rigidly to the house rules of the existing EU bloc. Add to this the fact that no one can figure out how to extend the bloated systems of agricultural support in Western Europe to newcomers without bankrupting the whole union, and the scene is set for growing stagnation, accompanied by growing disenchantment in the Central European capitals.

The first thing Europe’s political leaders need is a new language. They need to recognize, and not be frightened by, the idea that more and more integration is not always “the way forward” and that if some European countries choose that path, as they should be free to do, they may get left behind. There may not even be a clearly definable “goal” for modern Europe. It may turn out to be more of a continuous process of bargaining and adjustment. The news that some countries are already demanding a new intergovernmental conference to study the growing problems of the union before the current conference, now in session, has even completed its work is a sign that this picture of Europe as a process rather than a fixed entity may be emerging.

Britain, in particular, needs to acquire the confidence and the right words to put forward the alternative of a more flexible and subtly articulated European grouping of interdependent nation-states.

The Germans and the French could then be left to do whatever pioneering they cared to undertake, while other nations, such as Britain, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and the Central European newcomers could take a different way “forward.”

That would take a lot of the aggravation out of the whole debate about the future of Europe and leave government ministers more time to relax or concentrate on other issues.

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