Thursday, March 27, 2008

The French State Visit

The Sarkozys are in town lavishing extravagant praise on the British. Most Brits will smile but not take it too seriously. But should they? The most interesting comment about the visit comes from Germany's Deutche Welle, which observed that:

Some political analysts have said the French president is reaching out to Brown because he does not get on well with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Berlin and Paris traditionally dominate the European Union.

In an interview with the BBC before the trip, Sarkozy, who is scheduled to take over the European Council presidency in three months, said France's European policies would no longer be "reduced to friendship with Germany." He added that "the Paris-Berlin axis is fundamental but not sufficient."

Sarkozy and Merkel have quarrelling almost every month since Sarkozy took over the French Presidency. He's been irritating her on a personal level (eg his tendency to grab her in public, something the reserved Chancellor disapproves of), his tendency to take credit for things Germany has done the work on, and on issues such as EU competition policy and the independence of the ECB (Germany backs the ECB's stern focus on inflation).

This is a massive opportunity for the UK. Sarkozy is looking for another powerful friend and feels that Gordon Brown is the perfect foil (i.e. he won't compete on flamboyance the way say, Blair would have). Plus the UK now has the glamour of a successful economy and any European leader wanting to signal that he is reforming his country's economy does so by claiming alliance to and emulation of the UK. Mrs Merkel is looking for a sober partner who will treat her with respect - and again Gordon Brown fits the bill, given his similar upbringing to hers and similar intellectual bent.

The test of this new alignment might come in the second half of 2008, when France holds the EU rotating presidency, because budget reform will inevitably get discussed. Sarkozy has hinted at CAP reform. The question is whether he can be persuaded to deliver or whether this is merely grand talk in the Sarkozy style. Sarkozy isn't as close to the French agricultural sector as Chirac was, and his personality lends itself to making startling decisions (and for the French CAP reform would be startling), plus he wants to buddy up with the UK. Germany, the long-suffering paymaster of the EU, is likely to be quietly pleased with reform.

Of course we have been here before - Schroeder and Chirac hated each other at first, and both looked to forge a new alliance with the UK, and there were high hopes that the UK could use this position to force through some changes. Unfortunately Mr Blair shortsightedly threw away all chances of realignment by cheerleading for the Iraq War, pushing the French and Germans back into each others arms again. Lets hope Gordon Brown handles things with a little more finesse.

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