News Analysis: Short life of a grand initiative

Posted in Europe | 24-Nov-03 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

PARIS - Last week, France and Germany were portrayed in Paris as actively discussing the creation of a French-German union, a mistily defined political fusion that Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin nonetheless described as "the single historical bet we cannot lose."

This week, Germany's Social Democratic Party held its annual three-day congress, adopting a 23-page position paper on international relations. It said, dryly, in a single sentence, that German-French cooperation was "an important basis" in the European Union's common foreign and security policy.

After descending from a drumroll and flourish to a whisper, the great initiative went dead silent here on Thursday. Eight days after Villepin's trumpeted Franco-German date with history became public, the office of President Jacques Chirac issued a statement saying that although the French and German governments were talking about many things, "the concept of a Franco-German union is not a part of our discussions."

So much, at the moment at least, for the latest stirring of lyricism in the ever-closer, increasingly rhapsodic relationship between France and Germany.

Indeed, if Chancellor Gerhard Schröder praised the excellent ties between the two countries in a speech to the party's delegates on Sunday night, there was no talk from him of union, or epochal French-German perspectives, or monumental stakes. The position paper the delegates accepted on Tuesday said that the Europe the Social Democrats want was one where "neither competition nor rivalry" characterized the EU's relations with the United States - not exactly the mirror of French doctrine either.

In reality, after the bruising they took from a majority of their European counterparts over their anti-American position in the run-up to the Iraq war (Le Monde referred to "a massive rallying to the side of the United States" in Central Europe), France and Germany have moved closer together. A key consideration is countering their loss of leverage and unquestioned command in an EU expanded to 25 members, and the parallel concern of growing American influence among the newcomers.

That France and Germany are hunting for some kind of compensatory approach in relation to the EU seems hardly surprising. But a literal French-German union, political fusion?

The concept, which surfaced as a lead-story/$ trial balloon on Page 1 of Le Monde on Nov. 12, clearly irritated many of France and Germany's EU partners. Uninformed by the principals and knowing the newspaper's close relationship with the French Foreign Ministry, they judged the information as credible and felt treated with a measure of intimidation, arrogance and disdain.

Having overbid, unable to generate public German support for the concept, France backed off after a week's lag. It issued an official statement on Wednesday night after a meeting between Chirac and Edmund Stoiber, premier of Bavaria and Schröder's Christian Democratic opponent in German national elections last year. Stoiber himself, talking to reporters inside the Elysée Palace, dismissed union as "not vision that could become a reality."

Last week, after the concept surfaced with two full pages of accompanying articles in Le Monde and the sub-headline "de Villepin speaks of the virtues of a Franco-German union," German reaction, even from a government spokesman, was palpably tepid or ironically skeptical.

In response, Villepin, still referring to union as a "needed horizon," retreated to the position that "of course, today, it doesn't in any way involve renouncing our sovereignty. It involves bringing our strengths together, two countries, two peoples working continuously together."

When he was asked by a French interviewer to go into the details and practicalities of a union - could France and Germany share a single seat at the United Nations Security Council or at the EU Commission? - Villepin replied, "Let's not insult the future."

The problem became whether Villepin was insulting the intelligence of those EU members who believe the union talk was a clumsy threat of consequences if they continue to resist passage in December of the EU constitution that France and Germany so much want.

In recent days, Poland has spoken out angrily against the possibility of the EU's being dominated by a French-German club. In the irritated view of the Spanish and Polish governments, which reject the French-German stance as EU spokesmen as a relic from a Europe long gone, Paris and Berlin's most strikingly shared traits these days are low growth, resistance to change and defiance of the EU's Stability Pact rules limiting deficits and debt.

Indeed, Le Monde, in its initial article claiming that French-German union was under discussion, acknowledged that the enterprise had a central tactical aspect. The Union flag was being wielded by France, it said, specifically to warn Spain and Poland "against a blockade" of next month's intergovernmental conference on the constitution. Both the Poles and Spaniards refuse to accept a constitutional draft provision that reduces their voting powers inside the EU.

While not getting personally involved in the union talk, Schröder appeared to agree with its presumed tactical intent, signaling that if the constitutional draft disintegrated, France and Germany would move ahead together as a kind of "core Europe." This tacitly opened the prospect of the French and Germans elevating themselves to an elite status, with the rest of EU membership relegated to a cash-poor second division.

In fact, in remarks aimed at Poland and Spain earlier in the month, the chancellor threatened countries blocking the constitution with "undesired" financial effects.

"Whoever fails to see that" linkage, Schröder said, "will have to learn that disregarding such considerations means suffering the consequences."

In their most embarrassing aspect, the circumstances were reminiscent of French-German gaffes in the months before the Iraq war. Without consulting its EU or NATO allies, Germany announced it would have nothing to do with military action even if it were approved by the United Nations.

Then, France and Germany sought to portray Europe as being opposed to American and British plans to oust Saddam Hussein. When almost all of EU's newcomers from Central and Eastern Europe said they were on the side of the coalition, Chirac attacked them for having missed an opportunity to shut their mouths.

But the issue of a genuine union could hardly be a comfortable one for the two countries, either. A high British official who said he had spoken to a German counterpart about the so-called initiative was told to pay it no mind, and that he had no idea what the French were talking about

However interesting a French-German political fusion might be for France, nullifying the geopolitical advantages Germany gained through reunification, it has objectively less appeal for the Germans.

Such an undertaking would obliterate the still widely held German ideal of a federal Europe, and it would dilute Germany's potential to serve as the dominant Western European player in the development of economic and political relations with Eastern Europe and Russia.

Most of all, talk of union seems to perpetuate the divisions, in many respects a product of the minority French-German stance on the Iraq war, that now characterize an EU that will group 25 members next year.

Wolfgang Schäuble, second-in-command of the Christian Democratic Party's parliamentary delegation and an advocate since the mid-1990's of vanguard or pioneer groups of countries within the EU, described the situation this way:

"At the moment, you've got to ask yourself how clever it is to point toward what could happen if the constitution fails. Cooperation between France and Germany must bring European integration forward, and not splinter it. Unfortunately, in recent times, it's been at fault in creating more splits."