BERLIN – Britain has struck out against pressure for the 27-nation European Union to centralize more decision-making as the continent tackles its debt crisis, with its foreign secretary insisting that Europe needs flexibility and not uniformity.
Rebuffing German calls for deeper integration, William Hague warned a foreign policy conference in Berlin Tuesday against imposing a model designed to help the 17 countries that use the euro with their debt crisis on all 27 members of the EU.
"There are obvious issues for countries not in the eurozone, for whom it will never be acceptable to have a situation in which the eurozone acts as a bloc (...) in a way that determines the outcomes before the others have even met," Hague said.
Britain has long been the most skeptical member of the EU and is facing calls at home for a referendum on its continued membership. Hague's warning was clearly at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's insistence on the need to deepen Europe's political and economic cooperation to emerge stronger from the debt crisis.
"The eurozone countries must do what they must to resolve the crisis, but the way forward for the EU as a whole is not more centralization and uniformity but of flexibility and variable geometry ... so as not to disadvantage those that do not wish to participate in everything, and preserves the things we all value," said Hague.
However, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, speaking at the same event, insisted that not only the eurozone, but Europe as a whole must deepen its cooperation, and that it shouldn't shy away from bold steps of further integration that will require changing the EU treaties — a lengthy procedure opposed by Britain and others.
"It is well known that diamonds are only formed under great pressure. And apparently good political solutions also need extreme pressure," Westerwelle said. "The pressure stemming from the current problems must now be out to use."
EU leaders last week held a summit hammering out details on the creation of a centralized European banking supervisory mechanism, a so-called banking union. But Britain — whose capital is home to the EU's biggest financial hub — remains very skeptical about that plan, saying it threatens to isolate those countries who don't want to join.
Hague also dismissed the idea of strengthening the bloc's foreign policy and military cooperation, saying that "it would be neither right nor realistic" to decide on matters of war and peace by a qualified majority of the 27 members.
"Indeed, just because some things work well in coordination with all of our European partners does not mean we should do everything at 27," he said.
Westerwelle, in turn, stressed that the bloc must act together to address foreign policy and security challenges in its own neighborhood, citing the situation in northern Mali, where al-Qaida-linked radical Islamists have seized power in an area the size of France.
"From Mali you only have to cross one border to reach the Mediterranean. Ladies and gentlemen, here lies a stabilization task that we have to undertake together," he said.
Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz