The return of Franco-German dominance?

Bulletin article
03 February 2003

The Franco-German alliance has provided both stability and momentum to the European Union, for most of its history. But by the time that François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl left the scene, the EU's 'motor' had more or less broken down. By the end of the 1990s, Tony Blair had successfully positioned Britain as an influential counter-weight to what was left of the Franco-German alliance.

Last autumn the motor sputtered back into life, catching the British and other EU member-states unawares. First France and Germany struck a deal to limit the cost of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) after enlargement. Then in January they proposed a double presidency for the EU: a full-time president for the European Council, matched by a Commission president to be chosen by the European Parliament. French and German officials reminded everyone of an evident truth: since the two countries start from opposite viewpoints on most key European questions, once they can reach an agreement the other member-states are likely to follow.

So are France and Germany back in the EU's driving seat? In a Union that is soon to consist of 25 members, no two countries can dominate the others. However, Chirac and Schröder have learned that by working together they can increase their influence in the EU, and reap domestic rewards. In the words of one Chirac adviser, 'there is not much passion these days, but there is still a marriage of convenience'.

France and Germany have tried leading separate lives with unhappy results. At the 1999 Berlin summit, Chirac destroyed a plan for CAP reform that would have saved Germany money. At the following year's Nice summit Schröder took revenge, forcing Chirac to pay a heavy price for the maintenance of equal voting rights for France and Germany in the Council of Ministers.

In the summer of 2002, both men won re-election. Chirac, freed of the constraints of cohabitation with Lionel Jospin's socialists, was in a stronger position to woo Germany. With enlargement around the corner, the French hoped that a revived alliance with Germany would give them more clout in the new, wider Europe. Schröder had never been a great fan of an exclusive Franco-German relationship. But with Germany's economic problems eroding his authority, he was in a weak position to resist French advances. He needed a success in foreign policy to enhance his shaky authority at home.

Unwittingly, Tony Blair helped to get this couple back together. Blair and Schröder have got on quite well. But both Chirac and Jospin resented being upstaged by the more youthful and eloquent Blair. Not only did Blair have unparalleled ties to the White House (whoever the occupant), but he also constructed a web of bilateral alliances with different EU member-states on different subjects for example with Spain on economic reform and with Germany on changes to the European Council. In the words of one Elysée official, 'French leaders were frightened of being surrounded by all those British bilateral alliances'. Many of them especially resented Blair's chumminess with Bush, whom they regard as an uncivilised cowboy.

Last autumn, the EU's divisions on Iraq gave Chirac an opportunity to steer Schröder away from the British. Germany's pacifist approach to Iraq placed Schröder at odds with the more bellicose Blair. In January 2003, with the UK apparently willing to follow the US to war, the French and German governments found themselves on the same side of the growing transatlantic divide. Donald Rumsfeld's sneer that they were 'old Europe' was merely a statement of the obvious. But it enraged opinion in many countries and helped to unite France and Germany behind the idea that neither the EU nor NATO nor the UN should support war against Iraq.

Chirac revelled in the popularity that he won in many countries for opposing an Iraqi war. And he showed little desire to make Blair's life easier by agreeing to a second UN resolution. Schröder was only too happy to follow Chirac's lead, rather than be isolated on Iraq, as he had been in the autumn.

As recently as October 2002, Schröder made a point of going to Downing Street for his first overseas visit following his re-election an unprecedented move for a German chancellor that caused shockwaves in Paris. Chirac had hardly endeared himself to Schröder by openly courting his opponent, Edmund Stoiber, during the election campaign. But in just four months, France and Germany seem to have rekindled much of their old passion. Witness the pomp with which the French and German parliaments jointly celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Elysée treaty, in January at Versailles.

But the Franco-German alliance faces plenty of challenges quite apart from the fact that Schröder and Chirac are not the best of pals. The Germans support the Commission's plans for CAP reform and the French do not. The French know they have to work with the British if the EU is to devise a common defence policy. Chirac is trying to revive the idea that France and Germany should lead small groups of like-minded countries into deeper integration. But Germany worries that such groupings may act outside the EU framework.

More generally, any strong force within the EU is liable to generate a counter-force. At the end of January, 'new Europe' asserted itself: the leaders of Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain signed a letter that supported US policy on Iraq, and was implicitly critical of France and Germany. Ten East European leaders signed a further letter in support of the US soon afterwards. These letters showed that Chirac and Schröder cannot assume they speak for the whole of Europe.

And yet, so long as the UK remains outside the euro, and so long as its prime loyalty seems to be Atlantic rather than European, the Franco-German alliance is likely to endure. It will not dominate as in the days of Kohl and Mitterrand. But it will give some backbone to an increasingly complex and disparate EU.

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