Wed, Jan 22, 2003 - Page 9 News List

No time for EU nostalgia

While France and Germany have put most of their post-war animosity behind them, their position in Europe leaves a lot to be desired

By Michael Mertes


France and Germany have every reason to celebrate the miracle of their friendship, sealed 40 years ago by the Elysee Treaty. But they have no reason to be satisfied with its current condition. Neither has Europe.

For most of modern history, the Franco-German antagonism -- the two countries' so-called "hereditary enmity" -- haunted Europe and the world. In his famous University of Zurich speech in 1946, Winston Churchill said, "The first step in the re-creation of the European Family must be a partnership between France and Germany." Franco-German reconciliation, guided by the leadership of men like General Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, made post-war Europe's amazing successes possible.

The last landmark in the Franco-German partnership was the Treaty of Maastricht, concluded in 1991. Reunited Germany surrendered its beloved currency, the mark, to boost European integration, but also to calm French fears that Germany was poised to establish monetary hegemony over the continent.

However, the legendary tandems of the past -- de Gaulle and Adenauer, Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl -- have not been succeeded by a comparable duo. This is not only a problem of personal chemistry between Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder. The deeper cause of recent estrangement and national rivalry has been German reunification, which disturbed the bilateral balance.

Until 1990, France -- or, rather, much of its political class -- tacitly agreed with Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac's famous confession: "I love Germany so much that I prefer it to be split into two parts." Germany's division created a rough demographic parity between French and West Germans. By contrast, reunited Germany has some 80 million people, France only 60 million.

Moreover, a "balance of imbalance" promoted a sense of equality. While West Germany's economy was stronger, France was a nuclear power and a permanent, veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council. Germany long ago renounced possession of nuclear weapons, and it is unlikely to become a permanent member of the Security Council soon. Yet, from a French perspective, eastward enlargement of the EU augments Germany's weight. The future "Europe of 27" (or 28, with Turkey, but not counting the post-Yugoslav republics and Albania) will be very different from the "Europe of Six" that de Gaulle and Adenauer oversaw. Berlin's geographical position in the EU of tomorrow now seems more central, with Paris on the fringe.

Moreover, whereas the tone of German chancellors toward the French government had always been moderate, Schroeder's behavior has been assertive, with the EU's Nice summit in December 2000 driving Franco-German relations to a 40-year low point. Chirac insisted on absolute parity of votes between France and Germany in the EU Council of Ministers, ignoring their demographic disparity. Schroeder did not seem to grasp the enormous symbolic relevance his partner attached to the issue.

More importantly, the Nice meeting showed how far French and German ideas about European integration had drifted apart. While France prefers an intergovernmental approach, Germany remains prepared to transfer more national sovereignty to the Brussels.

Now, like a squabbling old couple, France and Germany are using their wedding anniversary as an opportunity to revive their partnership. Chirac and Schroeder gave a foretaste of what that means in practice when they made a joint proposal that the EU be led by a twin-presidency: a European Council president (chosen by the heads of government) and a commission president (elected by the European parliament). This compromise attempts to square the circle by combining the intergovernmental and unionist approaches.

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