(A quicky, as I’m still insanely busy…)
With the overdue exit, stage centre-right, of Chirac it looks like France could have its first change in forever of fundamentally shifting its relations with its fellow EU member states.
Pretty much since its inception, the Franco-German EU alliance has been at the heart of the project, and France in particular has been able to call the majority of the EU shots. Germany often seems to have felt largely powerless to resist French requests and demands – because, after all, part of the initial point of what has become the EU was to prevent Germany invading France again. German war guilt has, to date, largely prevented the EU’s strongest economy from throwing its weight around.
But the departure of Shroeder after last year’s German elections gave the soon-to-be-gone Chirac a tricky last few months in office, with little in the way of obvious agreement between Chirac and Merkel on pretty much anything substantial being evident in the last few months. There’s no open hostility, perhaps, but Merkel’s frustration with the French “no” vote in the constitutional referendum – and the refusal of any leading French politician to fully come out in support of Merkel’s own plans for the future of the EU – seems to have been causing some tensions below the surface. Le Figaro has a rather nice overview of some of the recent Franco-German difficulties (in English).
The upshot is that whoever becomes France’s next president in a month or so is going to have to think very carefully about France’s EU future, and just which other EU leaders they want to throw in their lot with.
Of the major EU member states (by which I mean those with the potential to exert serious influence), Germany seems dead keen on the existing EU constitutional text that France has rejected, as does Spain. Both countries have governments we can expect to be in power for a few years yet – and seem destined for a close alliance. Italy under Romano Prodi is also very in favour of the constitution, but his position (like that of all Italian Prime Ministers) is so unstable that Italy can’t be relied on by anyone at the moment. Poland is a wild-card, being run by twin nutters who seem unable to get on with anyone – but, most crucially, with Germany least of all. Britain is shortly about to shift from a Europhile Prime Minister (who’s done little to prove it in the eyes of most continental Europhiles) to one who is more of a sceptic, be it Brown or Cameron.
Neither Sarkozy nor Royal have said much about their EU plans in this election campaign, as it’s far, far too contentious an issue after the referendum. But up-and-coming “third man” FranÃ§ois Bayrou – who increasingly seems to be one of the freshest candidates France has been offered in a while – appears not to have their reticence. It almost sounds like he could be pondering something REALLY radical: a shift from the informal Franco-German to a Franco-British alliance.
This is, of course, all highly unlikely. Bayrou’s in third place and his chances of winning are slim – as much as anything can be predicted in a race this tight and volatile – not to mention that it’s unclear precisely what he means when he says that, if elected, he’d tell Britain’s next prime minister that it’s time to end the “years of quibbling” and that “we have a lot to do together”.
But just imagine for a moment what would happen if, of the EU’s big three, it was suddenly France and Britain who had the closest relationship, rather than France and Germany, as it has been for the last fifty years.
Just imagine if the French “no” vote in the constitutional referendum was indicative of a deeper dissatisfaction with the EU, rather than the mere dissatisfaction with Chirac that it has often been presented as, and that France is shifting towards a more British scepticism of the current EU project.
Just imagine if France and Britain were, for pretty much the first time in the history of the EU, able to find a common ground where British concerns about the huge French CAP receipts were fully acknowledged, French concerns about the UK’s rebate likewise, and were able to work together, rather than in constant opposition.
Just imagine, rather than an EU supposedly irrevocably split between the “Anglo-Saxon model” and the French model, a way could be found to combine the two.
Bloody unlikely, I know, but still. France and Germany have plotted out so much of the EU’s development in unofficial bipartisan closed-door meetings over the years, and the project has stalled. Could a similar arrangement between France and Britain bear more fruit? And, most importantly, will anyone have the chance or the guts to try?