Berlin keen to use informal chats with EU's big six
The German EU presidency is eager to make use of informal gatherings with the bloc's six biggest member states in a bid to speed up decisions on crime and terrorism, at the risk of alienating smaller member states which are excluded from the G6 meetings.
German interior minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told journalists in Berlin on Thursday (11 January) that he is setting his hopes on informal chats with colleagues from France, the UK, Spain, Italy and Poland to reach EU deals in this sensitive policy area - which includes illegal immigration, cross-border crime and the exchange of citizens' personal data.
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The so-called G6 meetings, which have been taking place since 2003, are disliked by some smaller member states who feel sidelined by the secretive gatherings, which essentially pre-cook the formal EU meetings.
"I know that the G6 group of course causes a degree of mistrust with those 21 partners which do not take part in the G6 group," said Mr Schaeuble.
But he added "if we try and tackle too many issues in formal council meetings, not all member states are satisfied with the [degree of] efficiency."
"Informal preparation can improve the efficiency if it is not done in the wrong way," he stated promoting a model whereby each of the EU's big six states would "inform" and co-ordinate positions with a "group" of smaller countries.
As an example, he praised Poland for speaking in the G6 not only for itself but also for the so-called Visegrad group of countries - including Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
This type of consultations by the G6 with the remaining EU-21 would ensure that the big six meetings have "nothing exclusive," he said.
Mr Schaeuble's plea for a G6-led Europe comes at a time when the EU is struggling to ease its cumbersome decision-making procedures, especially in justice and interior matters where every member state has a veto.
The German politician's remarks highlight Berlin's preference for informal structures over more structural solutions, with Germany last year strongly rejecting proposals by the European Commission to lift the justice veto and move to majority voting.
His support for the G6-construction is also reminiscent of an influential paper he released with his fellow conservative party member Karl Lamers in 1994, proposing a "core" group of countries led by France and Germany that would co-ordinate positions in order to lead the EU.
The Schaueble-Lamers paper said that 'core Europe' should move ahead even if other countries - notably the UK - did not want to participate in further integration. These reluctant states could then follow at a later stage.
"This paper dates from a few years back and was not written under my responsibility as chair of [EU] interior ministers ... but we do need informal structures if we want to remain capable of making decisions." he said.
As a "good example" he mentioned the 2005 Prüm treaty on cross-border cooperation against crime, terrorism and illegal immigration which was signed outside EU structures by seven EU states including France and Germany.
These states simply said EU procedures would "take too long" and clinched their own deal, Mr Schaeuble said - but now that the treaty is there, the German presidency would look if it could be put "in an EU legal framework."
Meanwhile, the idea of a Europe moving at different speeds also appears popular among other members of the German government, with finance minister Peer Steinbrueck voicing similar ideas in the area of VAT fraud.
Germany itself is in favour of a "reverse charge" system - a technical proposal aimed at reducing fraud - but it is relaxed about other countries like the Netherlands rejecting the scheme.
"This will be optional," said Mr Steinbrueck. "Someone like [Dutch finance minister] Gerrit Zalm tells me - if you want to have that in Germany, that is fine."