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Last Updated: Monday, 31 May, 2004, 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK
From ex-foes to EU's driving force
By Angus Roxburgh
BBC News Online, Brussels

The plans for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to attend ceremonies in France next month to mark the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings have caused eyebrows to be raised in Britain, at least.

D-Day landings
The D-Day landings were a turning point in World War II
Six decades after the war, and with new generations in power across Europe who had nothing to do with the events of those days, an ugly streak of anti-German prejudice can still be found in the UK.

But in France, it's a different story. It's hardly novel for a German leader to lay a wreath at a war memorial.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl did it in 1984, and the picture of him holding hands with French President Francois Mitterrand at the soldiers' cemetery in Verdun has become an enduring image of Franco-German reconciliation.

Twelve years later, Mr Kohl visited the battlefields with a new French president, Jacques Chirac.

Paris and Berlin will be all the more determined to shape Europe's future, and to stand together
In France, the passage of time and the changes in Germany are fully accepted.

As the years go by, the Franco-German relationship becomes more and more firmly cemented into the architecture of Europe.

The process began shortly after the war, born out of the need to preserve peace in Europe.

French-German 'axis'

Germany and France became founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community, and later the Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union.

In 1963, President Charles De Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer took the first steps towards a French-German "axis" in Europe, signing the Elysee Treaty, the anniversary of which was celebrated last year with much pomp and circumstance.

The relationship has depended to a certain extent on the personal chemistry between the countries' leaders. Mr Kohl and Mr Mitterrand got on well, Mr Schroeder and Mr Chirac less so, at least in the beginning.

But the alliance is driven by a strong dynamic: Germany's enduring need for atonement and acceptance, and France's fear of Germany becoming too powerful. Close ties serve both purposes admirably.

'Confederation' calls

In the past year or so, the Paris-Berlin axis has developed so considerably that it threatens - or promises - to become not just the "motor" of European integration but to supplant the EU, led by the UK, baulk at moves towards greater integration.

Jacques Chirac (l) and Gerhard Schroeder drinking together. Archive picture
The Franco-German friendship has blossomed
German and French government ministers hold regular bilateral meetings to co-ordinate policies.

Last year, Mr Chirac even "represented" Germany for a day at an EU summit. This month the two countries held an unprecedented joint cabinet meeting.

Ever since they joined diplomatic forces in opposing the war on Iraq, the two countries have been edging towards a joint foreign policy.

There is talk of joint industrial and economic policies - all the things that Mr Schroeder and Mr Chirac will be content to see a "pioneer group" of EU nations do if less integrationist countries insist on holding back.

The French and German EU commissioners, Jacques Lamy and Guenter Verheugen, have even called for a "French-German confederation".

'Social entity'

A few years ago there was much talk about the UK joining the duo in a triangular relationship at the heart of Europe.

But with the UK dithering about the European project - outside of the euro-zone, and dubious about integrationist elements of the planned constitution - it is still France and Germany that form the real core of the EU.

The arrival of new members from central and eastern Europe, many of them with more Atlanticist leanings, may even strengthen this development.

Paris and Berlin will be all the more determined to shape Europe's future, and to stand together.

They are set apart from countries like Britain not only by their commitment to creating a European foreign policy and their willingness to pool sovereignty (through majority voting) in an increasing number of policy areas, but also by their vision of Europe as a "social entity".

This implies much more state intervention, much more regulation of the economy, and greater workers' rights, than countries like Britain believe in.

Doing it alone

Neither France nor Germany - under socialist or centre-right governments - has ever quite embraced the deregulated, free-market model championed by Britain.

For all these reasons, Mr Schroeder's visit to the war graves in France next month will be symbolic of much more than just post-war reconciliation.

We are watching two former enemies determined not just to be friends, but to unite in such a way that a future war between them would be simply inconceivable.

To that end they will take steady steps towards real political union - and if other countries in the EU do not wish to join them, they will do it alone.

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