Germany and France have postponed a March 3 economic summit, their respective finance ministries said Feb. 25. The last-minute cancellation follows recent tensions between the two countries as they vie for influence on the European stage, most notably as France attempts to create an economic union for Mediterranean states. Yet, the proposed Mediterranean Union is merely a topical reflection of France and Germany's fundamentally different geopolitical alignment and goals — differences that will grow in years to come.
France and Germany have postponed until June 9 an economic summit that was scheduled to take place in Paris on March 3, the French and German finance ministries said Feb. 25 amid murmurs about strained Franco-German relations. The summit was to feature talks between both nations' leaders and other important personnel: namely, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck and European Central Bank council members Axel Weber and Christian Noyer. With this lineup, the official reason cited for the summit's cancellation — Sarkozy's "busy agenda" — appears flimsy, especially since Sarkozy will spend the day on a field trip to central France instead. The real reason for the summit's postponement is Berlin's ire over Paris' ambitious proposal to create a political bloc conjoining all of the Mediterranean Sea littoral states. And even that disagreement is just the tip of the iceberg; French and German interests are beginning to diverge on a generational scale. The concept of a Mediterranean Union has been around for years; it began as France's way to pacify Turkey after the latter was refused admission to the European Union. The Mediterranean Union would necessarily include EU members Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta, Cyprus and France, as well as several North African and Middle Eastern countries — notably Turkey. Germany, which obviously would be left out of the deal, argues that such a union would threaten EU stability and privilege seven EU states over the other 20. More fundamentally, France is a Mediterranean power, as well as a northern European one, and it has substantial interests in both spheres, as well as throughout North Africa. Germany, meanwhile, is a northern European power without real Mediterranean interests and does not want to become entangled by proxy in purely southern concerns. Moreover, from Germany's perspective, Sarkozy has exacerbated the disagreement by assuming that the European Union would bankroll the Mediterranean Union and give it a rubber stamp of approval, while the European Union itself would have only partial representation within the new bloc. France also intends to lead the Mediterranean Union — an arrangement Germany would resist even if it approved of the bloc in principle. But the speculation about the disagreements surrounding the Mediterranean Union throws light onto the more significant forces at work in Franco-German relations. A tectonic shift in both countries' geopolitical aims has taken place — one that will govern all topical issues for the foreseeable future. In short, the two countries have returned to their historically familiar roles as contenders for Continental dominance. Germany finally has emerged from half a century characterized by internal division, introspection and guilt. Reunified and prosperous, it now wishes to exercise its new confidence and take its place as the leader of Europe. Meanwhile, France's Gaullist dreams of becoming a global superpower have undergone a much-needed correction, and Paris' sphere of influence has shrunk to encompass only Europe and the Mediterranean. But in its diminished sphere, France is no less ambitious than before — and possibly more likely to succeed. The two countries are competing again, and in this context, France's bid to organize a union of littoral Mediterranean states has obvious strategic implications, as does Germany's resistance to the plan. The Franco-German competition will grow even fiercer when Paris takes over the rotating EU presidency in July with a laundry list of items to achieve, including the Mediterranean Union, the EU treaty and the resumption of relations with Russia. But the immediate effect of the renewed contest between Germany and France is a certain satisfaction among the Russians, who are watching from the sideline. As long as Western Europe remains divided, Russia has little to fear from it. Moscow therefore will do whatever it can to stoke the flames of Franco-German competition. And it might not have to do much.