Thursday, August 02, 2007

Can a new Anglo-German axis supplant the Franco-German axis as the main driver of the EU?

London has always dreamed of breaking up the Franco-German partnership that has dominated the EU from it's inception. Every time the leaders of the three countries change, there are high hopes that the relationships between the three can be re-made. Blair, Chirac and Schroeder all came to power within a few years of each other, and there were expectations that Britain under the charismatic Blair, could muscle in on the relationship especially as Chirac and Schroeder didn't initially like each other. Unfortunately the Iraq war threw France and Germany back into each other's arms again.

But the relationships are again in state of flux. Angela Merkel became Chancellor of Germany two years ago and France acquired Sarkozy and Britain acquired Gordon Brown within the space of a few months this year.

And the initial signs are that that Sarkozy, just two months into his presidency, is seriously irritating Berlin. De Spiegel ran an article a few weeks ago titled, "Sarkozy Wrestles with Merkel for European Dominance" where they detailed a myriad of disagreements from economic policy (Sarkozy is protectionist and wants to renege on the EU's free movement of capital rules that allow any company to take over any other company within the EU), disagreements over EADS (who operate Airbus) to foreign policy disagreements (eg over relations with Libya) to the ECB (France wants politicians to be able to interfere with interest rate decisions, Merkel's icy response was "I don't think very much of that at all. I won't allow it to happen").

In another De Spigel article that got reprinted in the American magazine BusinessWeek, the Germans spell out the problem in detail:

At the European Union summit in Brussels in June, he convinced the stubborn Poles to support the simplified European Union treaty. German Chancellor and then-EU Council President Angela Merkel and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, may have done most of the legwork to bring about the agreement but Sarkozy behaved as if bringing Poland's ruling Kaczynski brothers on board was entirely his doing. The way Sarkozy described it, he was the one who had managed to rescue the EU from one of its many, great historical crises.

The small-statured Sarkozy has assumed the role of the great statesman. Slapping shoulders, patting backs and distributing kisses, he leaves the impression of success in his wake. His approach is allowing the French to breathe a collective sigh of relief. After many years of near-paralysis, the country is assuming the leadership of an increasingly lethargic EU.

This, at least, is the impression Sarkozy would like to make. His European partners can only look on in speechless astonishment as Sarkozy rushes ahead. The crowing of the Gallic rooster is replacing the European anthem as Europe acquires a leader who has shown himself willing to flaunt tradition. His will, it appears, is the road to success.

There is only one problem: Sarkozy's victories are stolen victories. He is steadily co-opting successes which, in some cases, others have spent years diligently preparing. His policies are intended to radiate dynamism and energy. But in reality, he jumps from one issue to the next -- with apparently no system or coherence, but with a great deal of fanfare and fireworks.

His European counterparts are witnessing this spectacle with increasing annoyance. Instead of being a team player, Sarkozy likes to take the lead, even when he has contributed little to the team's successes.

All of which opens up opportunities for Britain. France can never be the driver of the EU, this is pure fantasy on Sarkozy's part, their economy is too weak. While Germany is strengthening and German unemployment has fallen sharply, France is stagnating and Sarkozy's hyperactivity doesn't seem to have addressed things yet. Britain is of course serenely knocking out quarter after quarter of growth. Respect in Europe depends on and follows economic performance. By rights it should be an Anglo-German leadership of Europe.

It's telling that Gordon Brown's first visit to a foreign capital after becoming PM was to Berlin - not Washington or Paris. Merkel was said to have been pleased at the honour and pleased too that Brown merely shook her hand rather than ostentatiously hugged her (Sarkozy) or tried to massage her shoulders (Bush at the G-8 summit last year). Merkel is temperamentally much like Brown - both children of vicars, both very intelligent and cerebral, both with a restrained manner. Plus they agree on fundamentals, such as that protectionism is stupid. Of all the photo-calls with foreign leaders in the last month, Brown looked most comfortable with Merkel.

If Brown and Merkel can forge a good relationship, and Sarkozy continues to irritate the Germans, there could be a massive opportunity for Britain, for the first time since we've been in the EU. A very strong Anglo-German partnership could crush the French resistance to reforming CAP for instance. The possibilities are endless.

1 comment:

Political Umpire said...

Well, during WWI the average Tommy was supposed to ask if next time they could fight on the same side as the Germans and against the French ...