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Thursday, 9 January, 2003, 10:27 GMT
Europe's unresolved love triangle
Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl
It used, without doubt, to be a duo...
Angus Roxburgh

Whenever Europe starts gearing up for big changes or important decisions, as it is this year, governments begin to feel lonely, and realise they need allies, preferably big ones.

In the coming months the European Union will grasp at least two nettles - on "institutional" reform (who comes first, Brussels or the nation states?) and agricultural reform (how do you wean farmers off their subsidies?).

Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac
... but Tony Blair has broken into the partnership
In both cases Europe's big three - Britain, France and Germany - are wooing each other for support.

In the old days, ambassadorial telexes would have been clattering.

Nowadays I suppose encrypted e-mails do the quiet diplomatic chattering.

But the aim is the same: each country is determined to get its own way, and needs to do a deal with one other member of the trio in order to outwit the third.

Top two

It used to be, without doubt, a duo.

Under Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, France and Germany were the "motor" of European integration, while Britain was always out on a limb.

Both Chirac and Schroeder probably get on better with Blair than they do with each other

Tony Blair has successfully broken into the partnership.

Early in his premiership he struck a deal with President Chirac, which set in motion moves towards a European defence capability.

As soon as Gerhard Schroeder was elected Chancellor much was made of the similarities between his "Neue Mitte" or "New Centre" and Blair's "Third Way" - though neither gets much of a mention these days.

Both Chirac and Schroeder probably get on better with Blair than they do with each other.

Yet they see each other as essentially better Europeans than the British.

They are members of the eurozone, and much less closely allied to the Americans in foreign policy.

So while he has managed to join the duo, Blair has never managed to separate them.

Now Chirac is openly calling for the Franco-German motor to be revived.

Tractors
France and Germany disagree over farming
But it has never really faded away.

Again and again, when major problems need to be solved, the call goes out for a "joint German-French initiative".

They did it before the Brussels summit last October on farm spending (to Blair's fury), before the Copenhagen summit in December over Turkey's application to join the EU, and most recently over proposals for a European Constitution.

Their view is that unless France and Germany get their act together on big issues before they enter the general fray, then EU talks will become more fractious than ever.

In the debate over the future of Europe, Paris (with Britain) was pushing for an inter-governmental approach, with a new "president" to represent the European Council (i.e. the member states), while Berlin (and especially the foreign minister Joschka Fischer) had suggested boosting the role of the European Commission by having its president elected and presiding over both Commission and Council.

The Franco-German compromise - to have elected presidents for both the Council and the Commission - seems to have broadly satisfied Britain as well, though a lot of people are wondering how the deal will work in practice.

Another looming problem is the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Here Germany (the paymaster), which is looking for radical reform and an end to production subsidies, is pitted against France (the main beneficiary), whose farm minister calls the proposals "dreaming".

Britain sides with Germany, and it still very much wants to play its part in the trio.


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See also:

24 Oct 02 | Europe
18 Feb 03 | Politics
28 Oct 02 | Europe
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