Contribution for IP - Germany has to coax a sulky France back into the “Europe game“

As ever, things in the European Union simply fail to function without the active participation of the two great continental powers. But recently, France and Germany have acted more like the brakes on the European project than as its turbo-charged engine. How Paris and Berlin conduct themselves will determined whether the new 27-state Europe can address the challenges of the twenty-first century.

German-French relations, once so close, had seemed to have grown so apart in recent years that one was inclined to question whether there was still anything special about them at all. The vaunted German-French--the “motor of Europe”-- had hitherto driven the European Union, above all institutionally. It is not only en panne, as has often been the case in the past, but with the 2005 French “no” vote on the European constitution, it seems to have landed on the junk heap.

Will this change? There are signs that it already has--and more will be heard soon from France and Germany as to their desiderata for Europe. Germany assumed the EU presidency earlier this year and one of its declared goals is to put the European constitution back on track. France will be assuming the EU presidency in the second half of 2008, with which it can make a comeback on the European stage. France also has presidential election this year—and even if it is too early to speculate about the winner, it is safe to say that Jacques Chirac will no longer be France's president in 2008. This may serve to create greater room for French political maneuvers vis-à-vis Europe, and more specifically with regard to a European constitution, as well as the European Union’s eastward expansion and various budgetary issues. So, if nothing else, these factors give gives us reason to hope for a resuscitation of German-French relations. But the question remains: what type of relations?

A Backward Glance

The problem of the last few years has been the all-too-close relationship enjoyed by Germany and France—the other EU states are not pleased by it.

It would be misleading to assert that there has been no German-French cooperation over the past few years. Following the acrimony that broke out in Nice in 200X, when France and Germany butted heads over voting distribution in the European Council, the “Blaesheim Talks” were established in 200X. There high-level officials representing France and Germany met regularly to discuss their respective goals for Europe. It was a mechanism for rebuilding trust between the two nations after the shock caused by the imbroglio at the Nice summit (which was supposed to prepare the European Union constitutionally for eastward expansion.)

The renewed closeness fostered by the Blaesheim Talks, however, has had an unintended effect: the rekindled intimacy between Germany and France has provoked dissent in other European Union states—and justifiably so. After 2001, there were a flurry of French-German agreements, every one of them in the national interest of these two countries, but not necessarily in the best interest of the European Union as a whole. There was, for example, the 2002 French-German Agrarian Compromise, which was hammered out in a backroom in Brussels. [yes? It was what?] The "twin motor" of Europe was becoming a “locomotive without a train;” the smaller EU countries were consistently neglected.

At the same time, it was Germany and France, while systematically breaking the rules of the stability pact [How??], who reproached other (central European) EU countries, for instance, for practicing unfair fiscal policy. For many of the European partners, France and Germany’s claim to leadership was diminished by such high-handed behavior. The two states finally went too far during the Iraq crisis by pretending to speak on behalf of Europe as a whole and assuming that their European partners would stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their defiance of Washington. The price of this escapade was, arguably, the deepest rift the European Union has ever experienced. Irrespective of whether or not the German-French position on the Iraq War was justified, the fact remains that the European Union was incapable of functioning with France and Germany aligned against not only the United States, but also in opposition to a large number of their EU partners.

Perhaps one of the most damaging consequences of this diplomatic melee was that German and French energies could not be harnessed for the purpose of bringing the EU constitutional project to a successful conclusion. Not only did the text of the constitution fall short of many expectations, when it was officially adopted by the state and governmental heads in Rome in 2004 its significance and symbolism had long faded, a result of the storm clouds over Europe that the Iraq crisis had. The constitution suddenly appeared insipid and stale, and would eventually expire at the hands of the French several months hence.

German-French Rift

For years both have neglected to do their part in shaping a political Europe of the future.

The German-French relationship, as well as it may function at the technical and practical level of cooperation, has suffered dramatically from a lack of vision in recent years. Germany and France have not actively and energetically attempted to shape Europe for the modern era. Numbering among the missed opportunities was the French failure to reply to the famous 1994 Schäuble-Lamers paper, in which Germany proposed to France a preemptive integration [Integrationssprung???] on the eve of the European Union's planned northward expansion. Other missed opportunities were the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty [Why Missed Opportunity??] as well as the 1999-2000 period during which the tandem might have laid the institutional and financial or groundwork for the European Union’s eastward expansion (Germany held the EU presidency in 1999, as did France a year later.) German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s Humboldt Speech in May 2000, in which he proposed a closely knit, federal European Union, elicited no reply from Paris. At the time, France was in the thick of its presidential election. French and German ideas were also lacking during the 2002 constitutional convention, and when some solid ideas finally materialized toward the end of that year Europe was divided amongst itself as a result of Iraq. By that time Berlin in Paris had squandered a good portion of their credibility.

There are two reasons for this failure—one is German and one French. First, the German reason: Berlin broke with three of its main traditions in European policies. For one, it had of late maintained aloof toward the European Commission. Secondly, it began to throw its national political weight around in international affairs. And, third, was the complicated break down of the Euro-Atlantic alliance, which Chancellor Merkel has since been attempting to repair. Seldom had Germany been so hostile to the Commission as it was under the political stewardship of the 1998-2005 German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. With Schröder as chancellor, Berlin willfully neglected this traditional pillar of its European policy, as well as the European Parliament, and instead concentrated its energies on the European Council. One might call this the “Frenchification”of Germany’s European policy because for the first time Germany was strongly asserting its national interest within Europe, through intensified discussion regarding its net contribution and by lobbying for a German seat on the United Nations Security Council, which was presented to EU partner-states as a de facto European seat. Germany kicked up a lot of dust during this period—and bruised some feelings in the process. Its enmity toward the Commission alienated the smaller member-states, which have traditionally relied on the European Union’s supranational mechanisms/structures [???]. And German go-it-alone policies in the context of Europe, even if directed against the United States, were particularly disheartening because Germany had always been a kind of guarantee that European integration and transatlantic cooperation would be two sides of the same coin.

As for France, its responsibility for the present dysfunction of the German-French relationship lies in its disengagement from Europe’s two greatest political issues of recent years: the European constitution and the eastward expansion. Paris chose largely of its own accord to distance itself from both of these key debates. First of all, the French attitude toward eastward expansion had for years been uncooperative—to put it mildly. Secondly, it was in France that the constitution met its Waterloo in 2005. Even if the reasons for the French “no” vote were manifold and actually had little to do with the constitutional treaty itself, its rejection in the referendum and the way in which France later dealt with the problem were seen by the rest of Europe as a stubborn refusal to accept the present-day realities of a larger, expanded European Union. The European Union is no longer an extension of French ambitions, as was so clearly the case in the first decades of the European Community. In no other EU country has the relative loss of power been so keenly felt as in France, which has reacted by retreating to its boudoir to mope. The first half of 2007 will tell whether or not Germany—by virtue of the dynamic that it can unleash as EU president—has the wherewithal to coax France out of its sulk, and whether the window of time between the German and French EU presidencies is enough prepare the way for Europe’s emergence into the twenty-first century.

The Road to Modernity

Paris has largely distanced itself from Europe’s two key issues.

Germany and France are both stuck in static debates about the European Union’s future—in sharp contrast to states like Italy, Sweden or Great Britain, which ????. In the last several years the great geostrategic projects for an engaged and responsible twenty-first-century Europe failed to emanate from either Berlin or Paris. The main task now is to lead the European Union away from its unproductive navel-gazing to a consciousness of its diplomatic responsibilities and interests (which will necessitate a reallocation of budgetary funds.) The future of the Balkans, the question of Turkey’s accession, the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), energy policy, and its foreign-policy dimension, as well as the relationship to Russia—these are all future issues that will help gauge the success or failure of the European Union. And on none of these issues has France—conspicuously France—had very much input.

The discourse on Europe in Germany and France is woefully retrograde, nourished by images and concepts of a bygone era. Political union, clear demarcation of the European Union’s borders, reciprocal package deals that balance consolidation and expansion—all these of these concerns reflect a static picture of the European Union as a compact work piece that has taken final shape. But more than ever the European Union is a modernization project and a process. It is the great strength of the European Union that it can meet the challenges of the twenty-first century through change, adaptation, and engagement. But Berlin and Paris have failed to put forward proposals for a flexible constellation of nations, for graduated integration, for the ENP project, or for a vigorous drive toward integration of the Balkans in the European Union. Not to mention the fact that Germany and France seem in disagreement with one another over the ENP’s southern and eastern orientation. They have themselves failed to offer a pragmatic alternative policy based on a clear-eyed perception of national self-interest. A favorite catchphrase in the German discussion is, “Bulgaria and Romania and that’s it!” The ENP or future additions to the European Union are somehow seen as being philanthropic projects; it has not yet been grasped by France and Germany that Europe’s most pressing internal problems—immigration, crime, secure energy sources, new markets—have in the meantime become insolubly linked to the destiny of the European Union’s neighbors.

Europe cannot exist without or in opposition to its neighbors. Instead of constantly bewailing the (supposed) costs of eastern expansion, both Germany and France now have the urgent task of leading a discussion on the political, economic, and geostrategic costs of "non-expansion." It will be up to Germany and France to play a decisive role in developing plausible, dynamic, and concrete strategies for the southern and eastern portions of the European Union; and the two nations must also play a leading role in the negotiations already underway with Croatia (and the prospects for the rest of the Balkans) and Turkey. Instead, the danger presently exists of powerful political factions on both sides of the River Rhine attempting to prevent precisely that with which it must forge ahead.

No Wheeling and Dealing!

As ever, nothing gets done in the European Union without the cooperation of France and Germany.

The German presidency of the European Union could serve as an impulse for a changed and redynamized German-French partnership. It has to reflect a new, shared vision of the future, in particular with regard to a European constitution and a European energy policy, the latter which will inevitably encompass a redefinition of Europe’s relationship to Russia. The other European Union countries will be watching closely to see if France and Germany cut private deals on these matters or whether they prove themselves "good Europeans.” There is insufficient space here for a detailed analysis of the European Union’s options on energy policy and its stance toward Russia. But if one believes the scuttlebutt coming out of other European Union capitals, then it is a question of whether Germany will pursue a kind of “Russia first” policy--attempt to capitalize on its own “special relationship” with Russia (as is feared by Poland, the Baltic states, Scandinavia and Great Britain)--or whether Germany will attempt to “Europeanize” the European Union’s position vis-à-vis Russia.. France will then have to decide whether, as in the past under Chirac, it wishes to form a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis (thus giving tacit approval to German non-alignment) or whether it will be part of a determined effort to pursue a Russia policy that has broad-based European support.

Equally consequential will be the course taken by France and Germany with regard to the EU constitution, which will be relatively unaffected by the outcome of the French presidential election in May. Nicholas Sarkozy has proposed a mini-traité through which essential components of the treaty can be “saved” without benefit of a referendum, for example the abolition of the rotation of the Council, the European foreign minister, and clarifying the precise legal status of the European Union vis-à-vis its individual member states. Although his main opponent, [the socialists’] Segolène Royal, has been less forthcoming in her views, but she has expressed the desire for a fundamentally new debate and a new constitutional convention, the resulting document of which would be voted on by all the states and their citizens on the same day. Whatever steps France finally takes, important will be how it undertakes them, and particularly in relation to Germany.

Also not to be overlooked is the fact that the matter of a European constitution is extremely complex, even convoluted, and that along with France there exist other problematic states, for example Great Britain and Poland. Still, French clarity on the constitutional issue could be the first step in cutting the Gordian knot—but only if this does not take the guise of an exclusionary German-French accord. The framework of an exclusive German-French understanding would make real the worst fears of countries like Italy and Spain (who have already ratified the constitution) by giving pro forma lip service to a minimum number of points with regard to consolidation so as to preserve a degree of constitutional symbolism while de facto keeping the European Union’s institutional system in a holding pattern and thus inhibiting energetic steps toward an opening up of the European Union through expansion, say, toward the Balkans. [This Is Unclear to Me] Because nothing gets done in the European Union without the impetus of France and Germany, the concern of the other EU members is that they will be left by the wayside.

France’s Opportunity in 2008

2008 could be a breakthrough year for the European Union.

The six months of the German EU presidency will not be long enough to conclude any constructive German-French strategies, neither in regard to adopting an European Union constitution nor with respect to the overdue geostrategic concepts on energy policy, eastward expansion and the ENP—in addition to policy toward Russia. Meanwhile, the German presidency could definitely give France a leg-up in these matters, and above in the constitutional question. Germany can only sketch out possible solutions; having voted “no” on the constitution, the responsibility is now largely France's to offer an alternative and bring a fresh breeze into the discussion. France’s determination or lack thereof during its presidency in the second half of 2008 will be the critical factor. Will Paris procrastinate? Or will it address these important issues with the same verve that François Mitterrand brought to bear at the 1984 EU summit in Fontainebleau, when he led Europe out of a seemingly insurmountable crisis by flushing from the body politic the Eurosclerosis that had been clogging concerted action? Just two years before, in 1982, the position of France and its policy in Europe hung in the balance. The question was whether to modernize economically through a policy of the franc fort and thus stay within the European Monetary System and Europe itself, or whether to leave the EMS and pursue a policy that was termed by some as socialisme dans un seuls pays.

Back then France finally decided for Europe, for a policy of openness, and for modernization—and in doing so, it presented Europe with a decade of prosperity. If, along with tackling institutional reform through the reopener clause, the European Union’s financial issues can likewise be placed on the agenda, 2008 has the potential to be a similar breakthrough year. The European Union could then emerge with a new down-sized Commission, a new parliament, new rules and finances, and a dynamism that could make the coming decade a European decade.

This article is a shortened version of a longer essay which appeared in the December 2006 issue of Notre Europe.