History works against a two-speed Europe

Posted in Europe | 13-Mar-04 | Author: Julian Lindley-French| Source: International Herald Tribune

The Polish factor

GENEVA - The rejection by Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, of a two-speed Europe represents nothing less than a conversion on the road between Berlin and Warsaw. It also says a lot about the new Europe and changes taking place in the Franco-German relationship.

On May 1, 10 new members will join Europe's rich club, changing the European Union forever. For the past year the French and the Germans have been pushing hard for an inner core of the chosen who, under their leadership, would drive Europe forward toward their blueprint of a Europe integrated around Paris and Berlin. That plan now lies in tatters.

There are several reasons for the reversal that the Germans and French have suffered. First, several of the original founding members of the European Union, notably Italy and the Netherlands, rejected French-German leadership, fearing that Europe's traditional motor was driving not toward the political integration in which they believe but rather a directorate that would leave them less than equal.

Second, the simple realities of contemporary power in Europe eventually forced Germany and France to include Britain in Europe's nascent board of directors, changing fundamentally the nature and agenda of the French-German relationship.

Third, it became apparent that Germany, not France, was now calling the shots - and Berlin has no intention of excluding any partner from a European Union of equals.

Fourth, Germany is too powerful not to lead Europe and yet unable and unwilling to permit itself leadership that in many ways Europe needs.

It is in this dilemma of leadership that one finds the primary reason for Joschka Fischer's about-face in an interview published recently in a German newspaper. He said "visions of a small Europe" no longer suited a world in which global problems could be tackled only at a broad, continental level.

For almost 60 years France has shaped much of Europe's destiny in tandem with postwar Germany in a relationship that was founded on fear on one side and guilt on the other. Much of France's immediate postwar European policy was driven by the fear of German revanchism. Over the years the rawness of collective memory has faded on both sides but echoes of fear and guilt still inform the French-German relationship and surface from time to time in discourse between Paris and Berlin - usually when Germany wishes to assert its ever more apparent autonomy from France.

In the past Paris has skillfully used the echo of German guilt to prevent Berlin from straying - not least, from building too close a relationship with Europe's other titan, Britain. This is not without irony. The British and Germans feel neither guilt nor fear toward each other in what is in many ways Europe's most normal bilateral relationship. Consequently, London has very little with which to capture German policy.

The Germans feel far more guilty about their shared history with Poland than they do about that with France. Moreover, Poland has no problem with reminding Germans of that fact. This combination of German sensitivity and Polish bluntness is shifting the balance of power within the European Union away from the French-German axis.

Thus when Poland and other Central and East European countries join the European Union in May, they will exert an influence over the Union that is far greater than their collective size and economic and political weight would suggest. Germany will find it far harder to say no to Poland than it will to France.

Thus the lingering burden of guilt retains a strong political message. Those who attempt to construct directorates must still reckon with a history in which Poland has a unique place. After all, the European Union was originally born out of the pyre of the world war in which the Poles suffered so grievously. Countries like Poland have not emerged from 60 years of oppression to once again be told that their destiny will be decided elsewhere. They want their say and they have earned it.

It is to the credit of Joschka Fischer and his new Germany that they have listened and learned, and turned away from a path that, so many years on, is still too much in the shadow of a painful past.

Julian Lindley-French is a member of faculty at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. This is a personal comment and does not reflect the views of the center.