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Germany, France and the European Union
Restarting the Franco-German motor
Jan 16th 2003 | BERLIN, BRUSSELS AND PARIS
From The Economist print edition
The latest Franco-German agreement on the future of Europe causes
consternation in Brussels and relief in London
IT WILL be a rendezvous laden with history. On January 22nd the entire
membership of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, will travel
to Versailles to reaffirm Franco-German friendship. The last time so many
German dignitaries visited the palace en masse was in 1871—to witness
Bismarck's proclamation of a German empire following the crushing defeat of
France by the Prussians. (And among those present was a young officer, Paul
von Hindenburg, who, 62 years later, was to appoint Hitler as chancellor.) In
1919 the Germans returned to Versailles, this time as a defeated nation, to
sign a treaty that Hitler later swore to overturn.
But the reason for next week's Franco-German get-together is altogether
happier. For it marks the 40th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, a historic
pledge of Franco-German friendship. The treaty's signature in 1963 came just
eight days after General de Gaulle, then France's president, first vetoed
Britain's bid to join the European Economic Community. It established the idea
that France and Germany, above all others, would drive Europe towards
integration. Ever since, the Franco-German motor has indeed set the pace, in
particular by creating a single currency, the euro. Next week the French and
Germans will sign a batch of agreements on closer political co-operation,
including occasional joint cabinet meetings, to reassert their partnership's
centrality to Europe's future.
Jacques Chirac, France's president, is fond of remarking that the
Franco-German relationship is not intended to exclude anyone. It is simply, he
says, that without agreement between France and Germany, the European Union
cannot work. True enough—but it all depends what you mean by work. The latest
Franco-German deal on the Union's constitutional future, stitched together at
a dinner chez Mr Chirac at the Elysée Palace on January 14th, seems likely to
provide the blueprint for a European constitution currently being debated at
an EU convention in Brussels.
It will certainly be pored over at next week's session of the convention.
France and Germany have indeed once again pre-empted the decisions of the
Union's 13 other governments and given the impetus to make Europe “work”. But
the deal is a messy compromise that may well make it harder for the EU to work
as an institution.
The problem is that France and Germany have different visions of how power
should be wielded within the EU. The French have argued for a new post of
president of the European Council, the EU body which brings together heads of
governments. That implies a vision of the EU where European policy is
essentially a series of bargains between governments. The Germans, in contrast,
have promoted the idea of a more powerful president of the European Commission,
the EU's supra-national executive, which regards itself as a European
government in embryo.
So, rather than endorse one vision or another, the Franco-German couple has
compromised by plumping for both. The council will get a president elected by
the heads of governments—for five years or two terms (at most) of
two-and-a-half years each. But the commission would henceforth have its
president elected by the European Parliament, an idea meant to strengthen his
legitimacy—and his power. The fear is that the result will, simply, be
confusion—with the two presidents glowering at each other from edifices on
opposite sides of the Rue de la Loi in Brussels.
Boo hoo for the federalists?
Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister, made it clear that as a
devoted federalist he is less than delighted with the deal. Keen
integrationists in Brussels, who had felt in recent weeks that things were
moving their way, are also alarmed. Andrew Duff, a prominent member of the
convention, calls the latest Franco-German deal “a potentially disastrous
recipe for internal confusion and external cacophony”. Many of the smaller EU
countries are also uneasy. The “smalls” generally prefer the idea of an EU in
which the European Commission calls the shots, fearing that the alternative is
a Union of bigger countries stitching up deals between themselves and imposing
them on the rest.
The British government, by contrast, is relieved. In recent months a series of
Franco-German deals had revived British fears of being sidelined by a
Franco-German push for a federal Europe. One such notable deal has delayed
reform of Europe's common agricultural policy by several years. Others have
laid out ideas for harmonising taxes and for defence co-operation within the
EU. German suggestions that the post of president of the commission should be
combined with that of president of the council—meaning that the commission's
president would chair meetings of national governments—were denounced by a
British minister as creating a “kaiser” to preside over Europe.
That France has succeeded in persuading Germany to accept a stand-alone
president of the European Council—an idea also eagerly promoted by Britain's
Tony Blair—is regarded as a victory in London. The Franco-German proposal to
create a European foreign minister also seems acceptable to the British, since
this new superminister would be based primarily in the council rather than the
But British relief at not facing a renewed Franco-German federalist cavalry
charge may have to be qualified. The French and the Germans have also agreed
to introduce majority voting in the making of a common European foreign policy.
The French say that, if military force is involved or if a vital national
interest is at stake, foreign policy will not be decided by majority vote. So
European countries would still go their own way if these rules were to be
applied, for instance, to the conflict with Iraq (see article). But the
Germans respond that an invocation of national interest could still be
overruled by a majority vote of heads of government. Whatever the final
arrangement, the drift is towards closer integration.
In the long run, the federalists will comfort themselves with the belief that
history and logic will bring them victory in the end. They point out that the
creation of a European foreign minister follows the failure of the current
arrangement of two jobs—one based in the commission and the other in the
council. The creation of two rival European presidents replicates this
arrangement. If it fails, the option of uniting the two jobs and creating a
“kaiser for Europe” remains. The ghost of Bismarck may still hover over next
week's celebrations in Versailles.
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