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reflections

Dec 7, 2007 | 02:59 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The Return of Europe

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.
In the lead-up to Thursday's French-German summit in Paris, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a number of comments about French policy that had her sounding, well, almost annoyed. Perhaps it's not surprising; Germany has recently found itself on the receiving end of some French aggrandizing. The first topic on the summit agenda was Iran. Merkel only recently shifted Germany's position in favor of stricter sanctions against Iran, due to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's warnings of the danger that Iran might develop a nuclear weapons capability. Then she (along with the rest of the world) discovered that now the United States does not really think Iran has a nuclear weapons program after all. It seems Sarkozy enjoyed the Americans' confidence on the issue and was instrumental in shaping U.S.-Iranian negotiations — in part by delivering the cooperation of an unwitting Merkel. The second topic was France's plan to project power into the Mediterranean basin via a "Mediterranean Union." Sarkozy feels it would be natural for such a program to involve only the seven EU states littoral to the Mediterranean; that it would be equally natural for it to be spearheaded by France; and that it would be supremely logical for the European Union to pay for it. Merkel has no objection to the idea of drawing the Mediterranean into the European sphere of influence, but she noted wryly that a program underwritten by the European Union should have the full bloc participating in it and not just select members. The third topic was the EU constitution, a roadmap of which was laid out under Merkel's stint as EU president in the first half of 2007. Her specific comments on the constitution are not particularly important, but her discussion of it in the context of the summit with Sarkozy sent a clear message: that it should be his priority when he takes over the rotating presidency in the latter half of 2008. Sarkozy has not yet dignified this with a response. The two leaders are hardly on the march to war, but the familiar feeling of a cozy Franco-German partnership is becoming faint. That is because two critical features of the post-World War II era have fallen away. First, Germany is waking up. During the Cold War a defeated Germany not only was divided and occupied, but also was not allowed to field a meaningful independent foreign or military policy. Instead, all of its energies were harnessed into the European Union and NATO. During the 1993-2003 reunification process, Germany slowly crawled its way back to being a "normal" state that was allowed to have an opinion. Second, the ideology of former French President Charles de Gaulle is gone. Under de Gaulle (and decades of his successors), Paris' foreign policy sought to make France a world power. This required two things: Europe had to be lashed together into an entity that Paris could command as its own (made possible by a pacified Germany), and the foreign policy of any power that might become a global hegemon had to be hamstrung. This last is the root of France's oftentimes adversarial relationship with the United States. Just as Merkel is Germany's first chancellor to be elected since the reunification process was completed, Sarkozy is France's first post-Gaullist president. With Germany again thinking for itself and France again looking out for French national interests in Europe rather than French superpower interests globally, there is a bit of a tug-of-war going on. Germany sees itself as Europe's natural leader by dint of population, location and economic heft. But for its part, France is no more likely to concede the "natural" leadership of Germany under traditional power politics than it was to concede American leadership of the free world under Gaullism. In some ways this rising conflict is taking on economic aspects as the two squabble over the role of the common currency. In others, such as the constitution tussle, it is about the future of Europe — which ultimately boils down to who will call the shots. This is hardly a trend that will be limited to Paris and Berlin. Even under a strict definition of what Europe is, it contains 32 states, each with its own national aspirations. Poland's prickly former government under the nationalist Kaczynski twins, and the United Kingdom's ongoing efforts to remain above the Continental fray are only two examples of how states jealously guard their sovereignty from larger entities. Without the ossification of European politics that the Cold War imposed, Europe is reverting to its natural state as many countries constantly duck and weave through the mix of Continental politics. But do not confuse "more natural" with "safer." The Europe of 2010 will likely have a lot more in common with the Europe of 1913 than with the Europe of 2000.

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