The same old problem

Franco-German motor

Franco German alliance in colour Franco German alliance in colour
The metaphor to describe the inner workings of the EU and where it gets most of its motive power, the Franco-German motor or, the Franco-German alliance, is common enough. So is the criticism of it. In the Economist is a list of complaints about the way the EU is run and written from the point of view of the old Eastern Europe.

Complaints of this sort are a ritual and we can either conclude that they will go on forever, as some hope the EU will, or that one day the EU will fall apart just like the old Soviet Empire; which, as we are talking about the old Eastern Europe, takes us full circle.

Taking the Economist's report line by line we see that the first complaint is related to 'Buggins' turn'. In the old East appointment by rotation or favouritism but seldom by merit was the norm. So, on the one hand we have the desire of the new nations' political élite to break free from the Soviet pattern and to join the progressive West but, on the other hand, the wish to bring with them the tricks of old; and we have to see it their way on this. Just as the old Soviet Empire had a favoured inner circle so does the EU, the Franco-German alliance, which seems set to both dominate and annoy the rest of the EU.

The Economist report is not shy to raise the subject of the alliance and its shortcomings from the perspective of the old Eastern or, as they say, 'the once-captive nations'.

So it is said that these nations would like - A more considerate approach from Germany There is the complaint that - Germany snubbed them at the Bucharest NATO summit And that - much of the responsibility for this lies with the French.

The very fact that these complaints are being made AFTER they signed up to the EU tells you a lot about the political élites of the once-captive nations. But then the Economist can explain that too and, in the words of the French President -

"All EU states are equal", Mr Sarkozy concedes. But the bigger ones have “more responsibilities” (and are more equal, George Orwell might have concluded, than others).

We can only assume that much as these élites are growing tired of what Donald Rumsfeld called "old Europe" in turn the voters of these new EU members will also grow tired of the status quo and their political leaders for getting them mixed up with it. As the Economist says -

He (Nicholas Sarkozy, French President and President of the EU) has also flirted with the Kremlin’s new scheme for European security. This involves kicking the Americans out, sidelining NATO, and allowing Russia and the big EU countries to stitch things up between them.
Look there's Gordon! Look there's Gordon!
Obviously the very fact that the Russians are still having a hand in ruling them will not please the voters of the once-captive nations well, obvious to all but Sarkozy. Also while few people in the UK would remember the name Gerhard Schröder, German Chancellor 1998 - 2005, most people in the once-captive nations would know he now works for the Russian energy giant Gazprom and that the point of the deal he made with Russia is, that the energy goes straight to Germany by-passing the once-captive nations.

The Economist summarises the situation thus - That (the way the once-captive nations are treated) is not just unfair. It’s risky. It will alienate the East Europeans and make their political élites feel mutinous. East European countries have plenty of ways to slow down EU decision-making. So far, they have for the most part been at pains to show that they are good Europeans. That cannot be taken for granted. All true and in the article there is barely a mention of the Irish.

But what of the Franco-German alliance? From - sorry no link available, we get the headline -

Franco-German alliance shows signs of tension and - RENEWED doubts surround the health of the Franco-German alliance despite conscious efforts this week to present a united front in negotiations on EU reform.

There is a quote -

"If the Franco-German motor goes out of sync, we are all in trouble. But it is not what it used to be. It is not enough now to go to the French and Germans and ask them if a certain idea will fly or not. It has become much more complicated," said one diplomat.

It certainly has, this article was written by Rory Watson in January 1997! Rather like in pre-credit crunch days life for ordinary people was easier, so it was for the pro-EU political élites. As the financial crisis takes hold it could be that the inherent structural weakness of the EU that was not so much of a problem in the days of plenty becomes more prominent. If it does, what then? It will not be so easy to overlook and along will come an EU old favourite sometimes called 'flexible geometry'. This website has covered the subject before see HERE.

Put simply the dilemma for the EU leaders is: large group or small? The former gives the more theatrical types a chance to strut the world stage and lecture the US, but it also means as the EU grows a dilution of power for the Franco-German alliance which, like a bad habit, is easy to acquire but hard to give up. This is so as the voters of France and Germany had been told to 'hang on in there'. Especially so for Germans who were told that the pain of absorbing the former East Germany and footing so much of bill for the EU would eventually turn to gain but were never given a date for this to be so. A smaller group size within the EU is more comfortable and cheaper for taxpayers but then, worrying about spending other people's money is a trait few politicians have.
What's in it for me? What's in it for me?
If we cast our minds back to the days of Tony Blair as PM there was the daft notion, conceit really, that such was the power of the man the Franco-German alliance was to be altered by the strength of his personality alone. The twosome would become a threesome and they, France and Germany, would be grateful for this. For all the spin by Blair and his tribe, nothing of the sort happened. This nonsense has rubbed off onto Gordon Brown who can be seen in many a photo opportunity of EU leaders haranguing either Angela Merkel or Nicholas Sarkozy with his 'thoughts'. Both have been remarkably patient with him, so far, but perhaps this shows that German patience is running low. And despite Nulabour trumpeting the advantages of the unelected Deputy Prime Minister Lord Mandy, the Franco-German alliance is off limits to him too.

Final quote -

Already two clear camps have emerged. France and Germany, with the support of Belgium, Luxembourg and Finland, believe closer cooperation among a group of countries should not require a green light from all Union members.

"It would be rather strange to allow flexibility only after unanimity," explained one official.

But another group coalescing around Spain, Denmark, Portugal and the UK stresses the need for a unanimous decision, fearing the Franco-German approach hides an attempt to bypass national vetoes.

Funny to think that this evergreen problem was bothering the EU élite in 1997. Here we are almost into 2009 and it's still there.