The EU: from French to German dominance

April 5, 2007 at 9:21 am | Posted in Political Economy | Leave a comment

Another interesting viewpoint from Stratfor:

EU: A Golden Anniversary — and a Hard Reality for France
By Peter Zeihan

The European Union celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome on March 25. To mark the event, 27 heads of government gathered in Berlin, ostensibly to sign a declaration reaffirming the union’s values and outlining future goals. Disputes over the document’s text, however, proved so divisive that in order to avoid embarrassing refusals the leaders were not even asked to sign it. Meanwhile, the ceremonies were so dull that many officials wandered off into the streets of Berlin well before they concluded.

Europhobes point to such apathy as a perfect example of how Europe has failed. The union, they say, has no future if European presidents and prime ministers cannot even stay in a room long enough to commemorate the union’s golden anniversary — much less sign what in essence was a birthday card. Europhiles look at the same picture and turn it on its head. They argue that the union is so successful and its core features — peace in Europe and a rich common market — so entrenched that high-level attention is hardly needed.

Both are right, both are wrong — and both are missing the point. The European Union has succeeded and failed, not by the standards of the pundits but by the criteria of its founder.

France created the European Union both to protect and assert itself in the geography of the Cold War — and in that it was wildly successful. But that geography no longer exists, and the union now not only has grown beyond Paris’ grasp, but also has fallen under the influence of a power that until recently France controlled.

A French Creation

Located as it is near the west end of the Eurasian landmass, France has always faced the same geopolitical dilemma: It is just large and strong enough to project influence, but not quite large and strong enough to secure its well-being alone. This reality forces France to be proactive in achieving its goals. During the Napoleonic Age, this meant acting aggressively to assert its order on a chaotic Europe and farther abroad. In the first half of the 20th century, it meant being equally aggressive in seeking allies against a region that was developing an order France could not control.

Throughout both periods, however, the French met with defeat after defeat. Napoleonic France was not strong enough to take on the rest of Europe and Russia, while France’s Third Republic lacked the strength to defend itself against the other European powers without extensive outside help. Before World War II, France faced a melange of potentially hostile states — the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Italy and Russia being only the five most significant.

But in the early post-Cold War years, the very geography of Europe changed. As the dust from World War II settled, France saw a silver lining in the brewing clouds created by the U.S.-Soviet policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Germany, Italy and Austria were occupied. Spain languished in isolation under Franco’s dictatorship. The United Kingdom largely disengaged itself from continental affairs. And most important, the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain was explicitly designed to limit contact between East and West.

After a series of stinging national catastrophes beginning with Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow and culminating with the march by German troops under the Arc de Triomphe, Paris in the late 1940s finally found itself with no rivals.

In such an environment, Paris set out to create an entity that would be large enough to allow France to project power globally, but small enough for it to control. In 1948, France spearheaded the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community. This created the framework for the founding of the European Economic Community in 1957 (the Treaty of Rome), which in turn evolved into the European Union.

French domination of this entire process proved considerably durable, with the first true cracks not appearing until the final days of the Cold War. This should come as no surprise. The European Community/Union was designed explicitly to take advantage of the political geography of the Cold War, so when the Cold War ended, the continent’s geography changed. The pond in which France swam enlarged, and the Soviet Union’s imperial debris has since proven to be more than Paris can manage.

Nowadays, there is no shortage of challenges to French dominance in Europe. The United Kingdom is a full EU member, the belt of former Warsaw Pact states does not recognize Paris’ leading role and expansion into the Balkans has exposed the union to a raft of issues that are challenging to say the least. The greatest challenge to the French project, however, lies in the twin pillars of its foundation.

Germany and Gaullism

Cold War France needed two things to make the European project function: an ideology that bound Paris firmly to the leadership of Europe, and a platform on which it could stand to wield that leadership. France found its answers in war hero Charles de Gaulle and — ironically — in its World War II foe.

While de Gaulle did not become France’s president until 1959 — two years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome — his role as commander of the Free French Forces granted him the gravitas to shape debate within French society in both the Fourth Republic, which he challenged and displaced, and the Fifth Republic, which he forged and led. It was de Gaulle who imprinted on the French mind the idea that France could and should take up a leadership position in Cold War Europe as a counterbalance to both the United States and the Soviet Union. This, in de Gaulle’s mind, would provide the kernel from which a European alternative to either superpower could grow.

And he realized he could not do it alone.

Much has been made of the “Franco-German motor of European integration,” and rightly so. Even in defeat, Germany remained the industrial powerhouse of Europe while nearly one-quarter of the French population remained in agriculture. Without harnessing Germany’s economic muscle (and larger population), France could never have used Europe as a reliable platform.

De Gaulle’s strategy, therefore, was simple: Take advantage of Germany’s post-war guilt to sublimate German national ambitions completely within France’s European project. Use German markets to fuel French industrial expansion. Use German finances to feed French agriculture. And integrate the two states with the other community members to serve French interests.

Despite a number of changes in membership and circumstance, French diplomacy consistently succeeded in convincing the Germans that what was good for Europe (and, by extension, good for France) was good for Germany. France provided the direction and Germany provided the industrial and financial backing; as a result, Europe deepened and broadened.

But after German reunification formally began in 1990, France began to lose its pre-eminent position in European affairs. Yes, Germany remained critical in French thinking regarding Europe; but unlike the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, when Paris largely determined the German position, reunified Germany began to inject its own preferences — very quietly — into European processes. By the time German reunification was completed in 1999, the press began to refer regularly to the Franco-German partnership rather than the Franco-German motor. It was a subtle but critical difference.

No longer divided and occupied by the Cold War superpowers, Germany was again whole and deciding its own policies in its new/old capital of Berlin. The very geography of not only Cold War Europe but also Cold War Germany had changed — and with that, French hopes for controlling the European agenda began to wane.

During this time, Franco-German relations remained cordial, but the European project began to take a new (German) direction:

Germany flexed its newly reunified muscles in the early 1990s and began meddling in what ultimately blossomed into the Yugoslav wars — which a more circumspect France did not appreciate.

German diplomats took the lead in crafting the euro — a currency governed by the same conservative policies used in German, not French, monetary management.

Germany stood to benefit the most, both economically and politically, from expanding the European Union eastward. France was justifiably nervous about such efforts, which limited its financial benefits from the union. It also diluted France’s political control of the organization — the original rationale for creating the union (in the French mind) in the first place.

Germany, not France, is the largest trading partner and political influence on all the states that have joined the union since 1990. Germany, not France, is the global economic powerhouse. And Germany, not France, is able to hold — indeed, demand — a robust discussion with any major power of the world on any topic. And all this became the state of affairs before the relatively pro-American Angela Merkel became German chancellor.

French unease with the ongoing evolution of the European Union is not difficult to unearth. President Jacques Chirac, himself a proud and committed Gaullist, has often used the European Union as a scapegoat for France’s (or his own) problems. Such an attitude toward an organization that he used to firmly control certainly contributed to France’s 2004 defeat of the European constitution (a document written, appropriately, by a Frenchman) in a popular referendum.

What has occurred since 1990 is a subconscious realization in France that the European Union no longer is its exclusive playground — that the European Union is quite capable of going down paths that France once could have blocked. In fact, with the qualified majority voting structure, France can even be forced down those paths against its will. The organization that France formed to secure its interests is now, at times, perceived to be threatening them. And the country responsible is not one of Chirac’s traditional bugaboos, the United Kingdom or the United States, but instead the power that the French leadership held firmly in hand for a half century: Germany.

It is not that the Germany of today holds nefarious intent toward France, simply that it now holds German interests pre-eminent in its policymaking. With Germany undoubtedly the most powerful entity in the union, having Europe’s drum reverberating with a deep German bass is a serious problem for Paris.

And it certainly is reflected in French domestic politics. The ideology of Gaullism — like the organization of the European Union — was crafted for a different geopolitical reality. With the Cold War dead and the Iron Curtain gone, the idea of French domination of Europe is simply a geographic impossibility. As such, it should come to no surprise that not one of the leading contenders for the French presidency is a Gaullist. The candidate closest to that stance is Nicolas Sarkozy, who while technically Chirac’s successor is about as pro-American as a Frenchman can be.

So, with the French-German relationship as changed as the geography of Europe, what becomes of the union? The answer could be clearer than it seems.

French rationale for creating the European Union can ultimately be distilled down to three words: Guarantee French security. While the French effort has obviously made use of economic tools, the goal was political and military in nature. However, there is not a policymaker alive in Berlin who thinks a German bid for political and military dominance of Europe would be met with anything other than terror and rage. Until such anxieties cease to concern German decision-makers, Berlin’s goals for the European Union will largely be limited to the economic sphere — just as they have been since 1990. If Germany can make the union all about economic issues, then its position as Europe’s largest economy will do the rest.

There is a reason why Merkel’s first summit in her current role as EU president focused on energy security. There is a reason why Germany is the only major eurozone economy that has not called for more political oversight of the European Central Bank (ECB). There is a reason why it was a German who negotiated and wrote the Maastricht Treaty on monetary union. There is a reason why ECB policymakers look first and foremost at German economic data. And there is a reason why the ECB is located in Frankfurt.

So, when thinking of evolutions in the European Union, consider the implications of having the word “euro” replaced with “deutsche mark.” For all practical purposes, that is what the euro is.

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