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Monday, August 30, 2004

A destructive motor? Thoughts on the EU

Warning! Long-ish post of semi-recent politics (it's been on the slow burner for a couple of months). Might well make no sense. You have been warned.

Traditionally the Franco-German axis in the European union has been seen as the driving force of the European Union, from its foundation at the European Economic Community to its current incarnation. French political clout and (West) German economic power basically dominated the other members, or bullied when it proved necessary. In terms of population and economic might those two countries outstrip any other, with one notable exception. That exception is of course the United Kingdom, but for most of the UK's membership this has not been a serious problem, largely I think because of the many opt-outs of European policies and treaties granted to the UK.

Things are now changing, and though it is far too early to say with confidence where matters will end up, some guesses can be made. Firstly though we need to ask why things are changing. I draw attention to three things.

1) The adoption of the Euro by 12 countries, and its rejection in 3.

2) The enlargement of the EU from 15 to 25 memebers.

3) The Iraq war.

The adoption of the Euro created for the first time a formal distinction between various members. Previously there had been opt-outs certainly, but these were ad hoc. Now there was a formal group within a group, something that had been talked about for most of the 1990s. This came into being moreover because three members choose not the adopt the Euro. In the case of Denmark, and later Sweden, this was because of democratic vote via referendum. We in the UK didn't get a chance to vote, at least in part because public opinion was so strongly negative anyway.

The enlargement fundamentally altered the demographics. Most importantly France and Germany's strong position in terms of population (the latter even strong since re-unification) is now greatly diluted. Also many of the new entrants from Eastern Europe are more naturally pro-American and rather less in awe of France. In addition, although all the referendums to join the EU were won it quickly beciome clear that these new countries often had populations with a large Euroskeptic element.

The above two events created a situation which was going to cause difficulties for the previous order - acknowledged as far as I can recall beforehand. A re-adjustment of some sort was expected. What was not expected I imagine was the manner of the catalyst.

The Iraq war was that catalyst.

In late 2002 and early 2003 two important events happened. The first was "Le Row" between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. I think it is often forgotten how important personal relationships are at the level of international politics. On the face of it if Tony Blair can get along with George Bush then there is no reason why he should not be able to get along with Jacques Chirac. But the run-up to the war saw a serious breaking down of the personal relationship in December 2002 where Blair and Chirac basically ended up having a public and messy slagging match. It has poisoned their relatinship since, and I think there should be no doubt of the animosity both men feel for each other.

The second was the "Vilnius Letter" whereby the eight eastern european countries stated their support for the Iraq war. Jacques Chirac immediately denounced them. His line was "they had wasted a good opportunity to keep quiet". It was this episode that really prompted to the "Old" and "New" Europe divide, one I dislike since Italy, very much a part of "Old" Europe was very much committed to the war. However, you had a situation here whereby France was basically telling eight soveriegn states to shut up.

Amongst all of this debate between Blair and Chirac there was one noticeable absence: Schroder. Germany kept remarkably quiet. Although its hostility was well-known Germany seemed to be content to let the French do the talking. The result was that the Iraq war split got caught up in the personal split between Chirac and Blair, and by extention between France and the UK.

To say that France and the UK have had a troubled history of interaction is a gross understatement. We are historic enemies, and despite relatively recent alliances (the Entente Cordiale is only just a century old after all) the competition goes deep. France basically blocked Britain's first attempt to join the EEC (as it was then), and in very recent history the French kept up the ban on British beef long after such a ban in Europe was ruled illegal. Let's just say that we still don't get along very well. Germany's relative silence drew attention away from the Franco-German axis and onto a old relationship of new importance: Anglo-French animosity.

However, simultaneous to all of this were the ongoing negotiations for the European Constitutional Treaty, and through them one thing was starting to become apparent to the French and the Germans: that combined they no longer would have enough weight to bully the new EU of 25. Another thing also become plain, with the UK they might.

Also at this time there was a Franco-German defence summit, also attended iirc by Belgium and Luxembourg. It showed that there could be no coherent EU defence policy without the inclusion of the UK. The Iraq war also showed that without the UK there could not be a coherent EU foreign policy. And there was alot of heartache about both these things, because foreign and defence policies are one of those areas that integretionists have been wanted to make movement on for some time.

So a painful attempt to create a tripartite axis are being danced. In fact moves along these lines had begun pre-war, but the Iraq conflict showed how desperately some form of co-operation was needed. But there is a problem: two of the three participants retain cold-shoulders to each other. Germany therefore has started to have to act in the role of peacekeeper at the heart of the EU - especially since Romano Prodi was/is more concerned about his personal vendetta with Berlusconi.

This personal vendetta has been another source of poison in EU politics, and personally I wonder how much it had to do with the collapse of the talks to finalise the Consititional Treaty in December 2003. Nonetheless that collapse was also important in another way: it was brought about by two smaller countries (Spain & Poland) fighting it out head to head with France and Germany, and winning.

France and Germany could still bully their way within the Eurogroup - those countries who have adopted the Euro - as was shown by their emasculation of the Growth and Stability Pact. But in the larger EU it was now stark and obvious that the Franco-German motor was not powerful enough to keep the EU running.

The renewal of Anglo-French rivalry was obvious again however in the matter of the new President of the European Commission, and I think this rivalry is here with us to stay for at least as along as either Blair or Chirac remain in power. It has become an important fact of European politics, and I personally think it can only be destructive for a negative relationship to have such importance.

Looking ahead for the moment at least one of the themes of the above - the changing demographics of the EU - is set to continue. Bulgaria and Romania are due to join in 2007, and the remaining Balkan countries (Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia & Montenegro, FYROM, and Albania) are probably going to join further down the line. This will only further dilute Franco-German power. The big question is Turkey, which is making a strong bid for membership, and Turkey's prospective membership was something of an issue in some Continental countries during the recent EU elections. If Turkey does join we will need to speak of the Big 4, rather than the Big 3, and I think Franco-German dominance, already under threat, will be kissed goodbye (though of course both France and Germany would remain important, just not dominant).

However, a new possible trend is about. That of democracy. Several times recently a democratic vote has turned out against the EU of France and Germany. The first of these really was Sweden's rejection of the euro, and this was important because, unlike Denmark and the UK, Sweden does not have an opt-out, but the Commission acknowledged that they could not in any way try to force Sweden. Second was the "no" vote in Cyprus for the unification deal. The real test here though, to see if this is something as opposed to nothing, will be the forthcoming referedums on the Constitutional Treaty.

So that is how I see the EU moving at the moment, albeit rather negatively. I have high hopes of the new President of the Commission however, and already he has made some positive moves. Under Jacques Delors the Commission would be another motor, apart from France & Germany. Since then the role has been filled poorly. But its too soon to tell if he will live up to his promise.

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