LONDON — Forty years ago this month, President Charles de Gaulle of France and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany signed a historic agreement to consecrate the end of 75 years of conflict between their two nations. The Franco-German Friendship Treaty came six years after the establishment of the original six-nation European Common Market, and the relationship between the two countries has been at the heart of the development of the Continent’s drive for unity that has produced a 15-nation single market, and most recently, the 12-nation euro currency.
The 40th anniversary on Jan. 22 will be celebrated with a gathering of parliamentarians from both countries and a summit meeting between French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that is expected to produce proposals to put new dynamism into the bilateral relationship and the European project as the European Union prepares for the arrival of a dozen new member-states from Central and Eastern Europe.
The very fact that, after conflicts in 1870, 1914-18 and 1939-45, a fourth war between Germany and France is now unthinkable is the greatest testament to the success of the relationship sealed at the Elysee Palace in Paris in 1963. The two countries are each other’s major trading partners, and a web of bilateral contacts binds them together. But behind the anniversary hoopla fundamental questions loom that affect the way Europe will develop.
For all its pro-European rhetoric, France is intent on protecting national sovereignty; it sees Europe, in the terms laid down by de Gaulle in the 1960s, as an association of nation-states. Governments on both the left and right have defied the EU Commission in Brussels when French national interests were threatened.
Germany, which has seen European unity as the key to its revival from the abyss of the Nazi years and the defeat of 1945, is much more federal-minded. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has put forward plans to cede more national power to Brussels. Located at the center of the enlarged European Union, Berlin is ideally placed to act as the bridge between its old and new members, and the country is familiar with a federal system of government.
For Paris, the worry is that if the center of gravity in Europe moves east and long-term economic development in the east is fueled by Germany, France risks finding itself playing second fiddle. To date, the French have been able to see themselves at the head of a southern European group of EU members; but the future now lies east of the Rhine River.
More immediately, both partners to the Elysee Palace face economic challenges that can only cast a shadow over the celebrations. Germany, traditionally the powerhouse of the Continent, is deep in the doldrums, spurring comparisons with Japan. Growth this year is likely to be the lowest in the euro currency zone; the head of the national central bank does not expect more than 0.3-0.4 percent, far below the government forecast of 1.5 percent.
Embarrassingly for a country that has always set great store by the integrity of its public finances and its anti-inflationary credentials, Germany has found itself the target of rebukes from the European Commission for failing to keep to the budget-deficit limits set by the euro-zone rules.
The targets of lowering taxes, cutting welfare payments, shrinking the state sector and slashing unemployment, which Social Democratic Schroeder himself set when first elected five years ago, have long been forgotten. His narrow re-election victory in September was mainly based on his electioneering skills and opposition to a war against Iraq; now that the prime concern is the economy, the chancellor’s weaknesses are all too apparent, and his standing in the polls is slumping.
While Jacques Chirac has no major political worries, he, too, faces awkward economic issues. The government budget, which includes increased defense spending as well as big expenditures by Nicolas Sarkozy’s domestic affairs ministry, is based on growth of 3 percent this year. Experts in Paris think a figure of 2 percent is as good as can be expected. The budget deficit was already ballooning in the second half of 2002; it is now set to accelerate even faster as government revenue falls due to lower tax receipts.
The great problem for each country is that there is no indication of where the much-needed upturn in growth is likely to come from. With his party drawing much of its grassroots support from trade union members, Schroeder is wary of making structural changes that could lead to mass protests. Chirac, recalling how attempts to reform the public sector sparked mass protests that led to the election of a Socialist-led government, has adopted a kid-glove approach on sensitive issues such as civil service job cuts.
So, as their leaders and parliamentarians celebrate the historic anniversary this month, both the two main powers of mainland Europe face challenges that will go a long way toward determining how the Continent develops — particularly if Britain maintains its wait-and-see attitude toward greater involvement.
A constitutional convention under former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing is working on a blueprint for the constitutional future of the European Union. When it reports, Paris and Berlin will have to chose between a Europe of nation-states, each able to defend its interests when the crunch comes, and a federal system that would mark a major shift that would be welcomed by smaller countries — and many of the newcomers — but could mark the end of the bilateral leadership of Europe enshrined in the Franco-German Treaty.
At the heart of the 1963 treaty was France’s desire to keep a handle on the evolution of Germany — an aim increasingly hard to achieve since re-unification and in the context of Berlin’s growing world role. The treaty called on France and Germany to arrive at uniform positions “in all important questions of foreign policy and primarily in questions of common interest.” Berlin may currently be obsessed with its economic problems, but, lifting its eyes to the enlarged Europe, it sees a new role for itself, reflecting, among other things, its greater population, its freedom from historical hang-ups and its greater readiness to embrace a supranational approach to the organization of Europe.
Whether this can be worked out in the context of the Franco-German treaty or whether Germany charts a separate path for itself will fundamentally affect the way Europe goes in the coming years.
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