Jan 6, 2009 | 02:55 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The French Window of Opportunity

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Though his country no longer holds the European Union presidency, French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Egypt on Monday to lead European attempts to broker a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. He arrived a day after the Czech Republic, which assumed the EU presidency from France on Jan. 1, sent an envoy to try to broker the same deal. Sarkozy’s trip is overshadowing that of the Czechs in profile, publicity and efforts, and undermines Prague’s status as any sort of leader in Europe even though it holds the union’s top seat. The French often enjoy these sorts of high-publicity missions, but France has another goal in mind now: For most of the coming year, Paris will look to take advantage of a rare opportunity to solidify its place as the heavyweight in Europe, as it will be the only country in the region with sufficient capacity to handle serious concerns within Europe and beyond. The geography of Europe — riddled with rivers, plains, mountains, peninsulas and islands — has made it impossible for any single power to dominate the continent for long. Because of this, Europe’s history has witnessed a shifting array of alliances and rising and falling powers. For the past century, only a handful of countries – France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany — have really been able to shape the region’s policies and act as deal-makers in the international system. Each has a hefty economy and influential government. Each has risen and fallen as the leader of Europe. Some have been split in two, and some have been occupied. But in the past year, two of these heavyweights have been locked away. The United Kingdom has struggled to distance itself from the European identity while embroiled in internal political and economic issues. Italy’s economy was in deep disarray long before the global financial crisis unfolded, and the current government in Rome is made up of dozens political factions that cannot decide on a color for military uniforms, let alone real policy. This has left France and Germany to lead Europe — a volatile combination, since Paris and Berlin have very different priorities and agendas for the Continent and abroad. France has held the title as European heavyweight for the past 60 years, since Charles de Gaulle began shaping the institutions to run Europe (the European Union). But since the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s reunification, Berlin has slowly resurrected itself (first economically and now politically) as the natural leader of Europe — much to France’s dismay. This competition has started to erode the idea of Europe as any sort of union and to revive a sense of the Concert of Powers in Europe, in which powers adopt alliances to preserve their own interests against rival alliances. In 2008, this competition between Paris and Berlin was fierce and public, with most European states flip-flopping between the two powers on matters including EU treaties, economic issues, security issues and how to counter a Russian resurgence. France had a small advantage, in that it held the rotating EU presidency for the second half of 2008. In 2009, despite officially rotating out of that position, Paris will have a chance to solidify its status as the leader of Europe. In the coming year, the two absent European powers — the United Kingdom and Italy — will remain absent, and Germany also will turn inward as it deals with the financial crisis and two sets of elections. Berlin’s preoccupation with internal issues will give Paris nine months in which to seize more of the spotlight on the European and international stages. Paris could make some headway on many European issues, such as the Lisbon Treaty, energy diversification and a plan to overcome the financial crisis. But beyond Europe, France has dabbled with the idea of a full return to NATO, an organization it left 40 years ago amid friction with the United States. France also will attempt to play international mediator — as seen with Sarkozy’s trip to the Middle East this week. France has many ties around the world, especially in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and East Asia. But the best place for Paris to play mediator is between European states and Russia. Moscow and Paris have a long history of working together, a relationship built in the Soviet era and the original Entente. And unlike Germany or many other states concerned a Russian resurgence, France is not hampered by memories or fears of Russian troops marching across its borders or territory. This has given French leaders the ability to meet with the Russians without too much fear and broker deals — as seen in August 2008, when Sarkozy fashioned a truce between Russia and Georgia. Now, in the wake of the brief Russo-Georgian war and Sarkozy’s meetings with Israel and the Palestinians, it looks as if France will try to solidify its status. Shaping deals in Europe or mediating internationally is merely glitzy publicity for France: It doesn’t actually put Paris into a real power position globally. In Europe, this is as real as most power positions get, but in order to create its place as leader of Europe before late 2009, when Germany gets back into the game, France would have to create a new role for itself institutionally — either in the European Union or NATO. This would mean changing the command and control within either of these institutions. Such institutional changes involve massive bureaucracy (something France is good at slogging through). This is a possibility, since Europe doesn’t even have a unifying treaty yet and a new administration in Washington appears open to changes for NATO. However, France has a very small window of time in which to work before other competitors for Europe’s throne return.

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