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Berlin in Europe: between Ostpolitik and ‘power axis’

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Germany's soul is torn between Paris and Central Europe. Does this position reflect Europe as a whole?

During 2003 Germany’s attitude towards EU enlargement has been rather ambivalent. Since reunification Germany has always played the role of the Member State most in favour of enlargement, for economic as well as political reasons, continually strengthening its diplomatic and trade relations with the majority of the accession countries. However, the war on Iraq and the current negotiations over the European Constitution during the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) lead us to believe that Germany has decided in favour of consolidating the Franco-German relationship so as to form the ‘power axis’ of the European Union. Is this just an unlucky combination of events for German relations with the new Member States or is it a real attempt to revive and strengthen the Franco-German axis?

“Berlin and Paris are taking it out on Poland” was the headline recently emblazoned across ‘Fakt’, the new Warsaw tabloid with a readership of 700,000 and which is published by the German Axel Springer group. The popular daily referred to the divisions that arose during negotiations on the future Constitution which are pitting Germany and France against Poland, who has the support of Spain. One particularly bitter bone of contention is the distribution of votes in the Council of Ministers. Along with Spain, Poland is pushing for the continuation of the complex Qualified Majority Voting system, as agreed in the Treaty of Nice, which would give them nearly the same weighting as the ‘big four’ (Germany, France, United Kingdom and Italy). On the other hand, Germany, supported by France, defends the text of the Constitution as drawn up by the European Convention, which, among other things, simplifies the voting system by taking greater account of the size of each country’s population.

Tactical positioning and deep-rooted tendencies

Relations with the candidate countries have also cooled somewhat following clear moves to kick-start the Franco-German motor since the war on Iraq. Shoulder to shoulder in their opposition to US intervention, France and Germany have taken every opportunity to intensify their rapprochement. To demonstrate the extent of this rapprochement Gerhard Schröder even went so far as asking French president, Jacques Chirac, to represent Germany in his place at a European summit when he had to return to the Bundestag to defend his reform package. For its part, France has continually highlighted the fundamental character of the Franco-German relationship. The prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, recently stated “What would France be left with if the Europe of 25 failed? The Franco-German relationship.”

According to Michael Emerson at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), “This parallel movement – strengthening the Franco-German axis whilst cooling relations with candidate countries – is a mixture of short term tactical positioning and deep-rooted tendencies.”

This cooling of relations between Germany and Eastern European countries should be toned down. As the main trading partner of the majority of the future Member States, Germany knows how to defend them on key issues. Recently, for example, referring to the distribution of structural funds, Schröder strongly defended the need for the Union to redistribute regional funds in favour of Central and Eastern European countries, highlighting the substantial contribution that certain countries had already received in regional development aid from the Union.

‘The Nice Treaty or bust,’ the Polish maxim?

For its part, the Polish government, well aware of the importance of its relations with France and Germany, has already shown its willingness to find a compromise, so as not to be labelled the country responsible for deadlock within a Union of which it is not yet a formal member. To show this, the Polish foreign minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, recently stated unequivocally that the maxim ‘The Nice Treaty or bust’ did not reflect the position of the Polish government.

In the same vein, during a visit to Poland, the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, stressed that the question of whether or not France and Germany should plan on signing a new treaty in order to make headway on those areas that represent ‘red line’ issues for the new Member States would remain hypothetical until such a deadlock in the Union did actually occur. It would also appear that the French government is curbing its enthusiasm for strengthening an ever closer Franco-German relationship. When asked during a radio interview about the future possibility of France sharing the same commissioner in the European Commission and of sitting together on the UN Security Council, Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, said that it was too early to raise such issues. So, for now then, Germany’s European policy will remain between two camps, balanced between Ostpolitik and ‘power axis.’

Translated from Berlin dans l’Europe : entre « Ostpolitik » et « noyau dur »