News Analysis: For Berlin and Paris, a loss of standing

Posted in Europe | 20-Feb-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

PARIS - Regardless of how much or how little new European solidarity eventually comes out of Wednesday's Big Three summit meeting in Berlin, it produced one element of exceptional clarity: With Britain now consecrated as at least a theoretical partner, the French-German axis has lost its status as the reference point for leadership in the European Union.

On one hand, the meeting demonstrated there are now wider, richer, more consensual possibilities for pushing the EU forward than the joint impetus emanating from Paris and Berlin for the past 40 years. Three strong players, the participants seemed to say, were better than two.

On the other hand, the willingness of Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, and Gerhard Schröder to promise new cooperation for the good of all Europe commanded examination of the serious differences among the three - trans-Atlantic relations, the euro, the level of EU integration, tax and veto powers - as well as possible new elements of divergence in policy between France and Germany.

Because the three leaders seemed intent on giving an unexceptional and nonepochal feel to their get-together, they said nothing specific at a news conference about when they might meet again. Blair, low-keying the event, talked about "finding ways of making Europe work more efficiently." Yet the first question to the leaders went to the idea of whether they were trying to run Europe and brought a response from Schröder that "we don't want to dominate anyone."

All the same, the three men, side by side with Blair's eager-looking addition, signaled an attempt at a new way of doing Europe's business. And the meeting hardened into obviousness the notion that whatever the real limits of agreement among the three, the French-German relationship no longer represented the optimal leadership approach to lead an EU running to the borders of Russia, or, in 10 years, very possibly to the Turkish frontier with Iraq.

Who says so? British officials and German think-tankers. And, startlingly to some, the French.

Without devaluing the real and special ties between France and Germany or granting a psychic seal of full Europeanness to Britain, stuck outside the euro's common currency zone and self-defined as a Euro-Atlantic nation, a French diplomat recently acknowledged that France and Germany alone did not have the means in 2004 to pull along an EU of 25 members.

That is the professionally scrubbed version of where Europe has come, scraped clean of scales and asperities. In fact, by just taking place, the summit meeting gave legitimacy to a novel, coarser notion of reality.

Hours before the meeting began in Berlin, drive-time listeners to Europe 1 radio, a national, mass-market broadcaster, were told matter-of-factly that the summit meeting's backdrop was a French-German partnership that had "neither the energy nor the credibility" to lift Europe from its miseries and was now turning toward Blair, "the indispensable hyphen between 'old' and 'new' Europe."

Hardly suspect of Eurosceptic gloating, the leftist newspaper Liberation was drawing roughly the same conclusions. "The French-German axis no longer has the weight to hope to conserve its European role," it said in an editorial.

Across the Rhine in Frankfurt, the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was on much the same page. The newspaper wrote, "It will no longer be accepted that Paris and Berlin alone share the imprimatur on plans for shaping Europe."

These new realities, taken for the first time as givens in mainstream political discourse in France and Germany, accept that the two countries' attempt at joint European political and economic leadership became a train wreck in 2003.

They had failed to rally their neighbors behind them in opposition to the United States' and Britain's war on Saddam Hussein; as a result of half-hearted reforms and unwillingness to make cuts in state spending, the duo deliberately broke the economic performance rules of the Stability and Growth Pact they themselves had created; and the two were unable to muster the leverage within the widening EU to avert the collapse in December of its talks on a constitution. Mockingly, some German commentators, breaking into Italian, began last year to refer to Paris/Berlin-Chirac/Schröder as the "Duo Infernale."

In this light, the summit meeting had the appearance of an attempt to redistribute leadership from a vacuum of vanished direction. Yet, even with the addition of Blair, the three participants (already distressed in their home constituencies) had no instant, amplified credibility in relation to their neighbors in Europe.

Against the determination expressed in Berlin by the three to raise a beacon of European economic reform, a group of six EU members pointedly insisted on Monday in an open letter to the EU's current president that the stability pact must be applied and specific European economic directives carried out. This was an unmistakable jab at France and Germany as the pact's miscreants, and as the countries judged by the EU to have the lowest level of follow-through in the hard business of enacting on the national level the community's Lisbon pledge to make itself an economically competitive world-beater.

Of the six countries - Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Poland and Estonia - none have any tolerance for the idea that a triumvirate that would run Europe, whatever the Big Three's repeated reassurances about contrary intentions.

In this view, the addition of Britain as an adjunct to the old French-German duo represented no quick reassurance. Countries like Spain feared Blair could be more an alibi for Schröder's and Chirac's difficulties in reforming their economies than a guarantor of change and new openness in Germany and France. Pushing further, Italy charged that the three were grouping together for individual national advantage and that their undertaking had visibly little to do with the EU's welfare as a whole.

A subtext of potential new rivalries, perhaps magnified in a three-cornered relationship, came in here.

Germany is giving the appearance of trying hard to make clear to all its partners what former Defense Minister Volker Ruehe this week called "its driving role for Europe" in the Middle East. This involves Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's open attempt to coordinate Europe's diplomacy in the region with the United States and NATO and his definition of the world's central problem, dear to the heart of the Bush administration, as "the new totalitarianism" of "destructive jihadist terrorism."

If Germany maintains it will not send troops to Iraq, it appears, with its good relations in Israel and among the Palestinians, to be cutting ahead of France in trying to create a European approach on the region that is complementary rather a rival to the approach of the United States. German press reports say the French, unlikely to take on as their own Fischer's dire assessment of Islamic fundamentalism as the global menace, consider the initiative an elbow in the ear and powerfully resent that Fischer did not consult with them beforehand.

Besides the Germans' obvious direct interest in improved relations with the Americans - the chancellor travels to the United States next week to meet President George W. Bush - they also hope for a Washington-London-Warsaw carom effect on the EU's new members from Eastern Europe. Schröder's difficulties with the Bush administration have been described as a serious impediment to reinforcing German influence in a "new" Europe.

This is not the stuff of Chirac's continuously repeated characterization of a "perfect identity of views" between the Germans and the French, and it comes against a backdrop of France's recent eagerness to emphasize its role as the continent's most competent military player and its proximity and parity with Britain as a nuclear power and member of the UN Security Council. In the sense that both France and Germany, without jumping back chest-deep into the Atlanticist camp, are likely to look separately to Britain for reinforcement and legitimization on security and foreign policy matters, a new situation is being created with its own uncertain pressure points and arbitrages.

But on a day of professions of unity and common expectation, these and all the tens of mortally divisive issues within the EU may be considered as details. However far from taking operational form, by its great possibilities alone, a Big Three equation at the very least has given the French-German European leadership axis the look of yesterday's math.