A Joint Vision for Europe? Not Likely

Posted in Europe | 20-Oct-09 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: The New York Times

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy

PARIS - If Nicolas Sarkozy has said he's convinced the European Union will have the way clear by the end of the year to name its first president, he is also certain about the countries he wants to be its leaders.

Europe's pioneer president, so far without a name or a political profile, still will have to be designated and horse-traded into office, now that President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic seems to be backing off from holding up ratification of a European constitution.

But Europe's countries-in-chief? Mr. Sarkozy's aides could hardly be more direct: France and Germany. The two nations, it is said, "will constitute the heart" of a new phase of European history.

The phrasing is smooth, rubbed free of asperities, but the message unequivocal. As Pierre Lellouche, secretary of state for European affairs, put it in an article this month, "It's up to us today to put into Europe's service the unity achieved between France and Germany" since the outbreak of the global economic crisis last year.

To make the point to the world, France is preparing special ceremonies on Nov. 11, marking the end of World War I, and on Nov. 9, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Beyond commemorating the end of centuries of wars and hatreds across the Rhine, the events will project a French notion of joint leadership.

At the same time, the idea's presumptions and acceptance require both a suspension of judgment and a leap of faith by the rest of Europe, not to mention many of the French and Germans themselves.

Mr. Lellouche, in a conversation, argued that "the crisis forced the two nations closer. The other European nations won't be afraid of France and Germany leaguing together against them. No one fears that anymore."

In fact, a sophisticated concern among their neighbors and their own citizens might well be about the unity of France's and Germany's political and economic goals and methods.

Without receiving a clear answer on their feasibility from a new German government still in formation, the economic elements of French-German leadership as conceived by the French are expected to involve joint bond issues to finance development of "future technologies," industrial projects and infrastructure; closer tax coordination; and an idea to set up a European purchasing agency to negotiate common gas supply contracts with Gazprom - the Russian energy monopoly in which French and German utilities now have partnership investments.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is known, so far, to have expressed interest in updating the Élysée Treaty of 1963, which forms the basis of French-German cooperation. But as for the rest - like committing funds to vast projects - the Germans are bound by a new constitutional provision to cut their deficit to near zero by 2016. French deficits, meanwhile, should climb over 8 percent of G.N.P. next year and not return toward the E.U.'s economic convergence levels until well into the next decade.

Does that tell you there's a common notion of responsibility now at hand in France and Germany about how to keep Europe from sinking into irrelevance?

A very harsh, very direct and inside-the-seraglio answer has come from Arnaud Leparmentier, who covers the French presidency for Le Monde, and who served previously as the newspaper's Berlin correspondent.

He wrote, "The two countries are in fact more foreign to one another each day." And, "The reality is France and Germany are going to tear each other apart when the explosion of public debt will threaten the euro." As for industry, he described Germany as continuing to go it alone and refusing "erector set" schemes dreamed up by the French.

"Imperceptibly," Mr. Leparmentier said, "each is looking outside the E.U. for its new frontier. Germany does deals with the Russians and the Chinese" and "Mr. Sarkozy is gradually de-Europeanizing his policies."

That's a lot of contradictions for an entente on which Europe can supposedly build.

The eerie thing here is that Mr. Sarkozy clearly recognizes Germany's weaknesses and wariness as he tries to install its pairing with France as the hope of Europe's notional future.

When he says that "France, of all the industrialized countries, is the one that's suffered least from the crisis," it appears (knowing unofficial French criticism of German banks) to be a way of pointing to Germany's shaky institutions.

The tensions that go in both directions are hard to hide. Last week, reporting on the announced sale of Blohm & Voss, the Hamburg shipbuilders, to a concern from Abu Dhabi, the German economic daily Handelsblatt said that initial plans by the owner to bundle the firm's construction of warships with the French naval shipyard, D.C.N.S., "met with no love from the federal government."

But Mr. Sarkozy seems to see a European political constellation at hand where Conservative euro-skeptics are in office in Britain, Italy and Spain's leaderships are weakened into insignificance and the United States is bored into indifference.

From this point of view, a French-German partnership at the head of Europe has at least the advantage of plausibility, if not overwhelming substance.

That leaves Germany. (Which, during the Grand Coalition years, and in comparison with most any other E.U. government - think of the sale of Opel engineered to protect German interests rather than its partners in Belgium, Spain and Britain, or Berlin's refusal to commit to a common E.U. bailout fund a year ago - played very nationalistically.)

Up until now, the parties of the new coalition haven't fully shown their hand on who leads Europe. It might not mean much in January, but last May, the likely Free Democrat foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, made a first attempt at stating his international convictions.

"In European policy," he said, "Luxembourg is as big as France."

E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com