European Press Review

A New Blueprint for the European Union?

Chirac and Schroeder
French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder arrive at an extraordinary joint session of the French and German parliaments, Jan. 22, 2003, in Versailles (Photo: François Mori/AFP).

Is it a chance to strengthen the backbone of the European Union, or another opportunity for the big fish to boss the smaller ones around? A recent Franco-German proposal for two E.U. presidents has raised questions about the shape of the future Union, and antagonized smaller countries that fear being sidelined by Paris and Berlin in the decision-making process.

The 40th anniversary of the signing of the Elysée [Franco-German Friendship] Treaty on Jan. 22, 2003, gave France and Germany the opportunity to breathe new air into their relationship in full view of the world. At special sessions of their parliaments at the Palace of Versailles and in Berlin, France’s Jacques Chirac and German counterpart Gerhard Schröder spoke of their faith in a joint future at the heart of the expanded European Union. In Chancellor Schröder’s words, “Europe cannot develop without the French-German friendship.”

Lavish celebrations came a few days after the leaders presented a proposal for two E.U. presidents, which would envisage a president elected by the European Parliament to oversee the daily affairs of the European Union, and a second elected by the Council to speak out on E.U. matters and to provide leadership. Essentially, the creation of the latter role answers old jokes about whom the White House should call in a crisis. The plan, which would alter the current system of different countries holding a rotating presidency for six months at a time, is to be passed to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president of the Convention on the Future of Europe. It may be followed by proposals for parallel social legislation in the two countries.

Inevitably, the proposal received a mixed reception from Eurosceptics and integrationists alike, including the current president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi. Like Prodi, smaller E.U. members such as Greece and Finland saw themselves being sidelined.

Paris’s liberal Le Monde (Jan. 16) was one of the few leading papers that appeared to see any substance in the plan, saying it was “fresh evidence of the capacity of the two countries to find compromises to advance the construction of Europe.” Likewise, Frankfurt’s liberal Frankfurter Rundschau (Jan. 16) said the proposal “does contain more sense and reasoning than the process might imply,” and added that such a step might pave the way for greater cooperation in other areas, including a common foreign policy.

Other commentators said it was naive to think that agreeing to the notion of two presidents was a sign that France would ever subordinate its national interests. Berlin’s left-wing Die Tageszeitung (Jan. 16) said: “A French president who is stronger than ever has today taken over the leadership of the European Union.” These sentiments were echoed by Vienna’s conservative Die Presse (Jan. 16), which said that Chirac had used “the ruse of dual presidency” to win Berlin over to his plan for a powerful E.U. president. “Who is interested in what Romano Prodi has to say about Iraq when the future president of the 27 heads of state—be it [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair, Chirac or [Spanish President José Maria] Aznar—intervenes in the debate?”

Perhaps sensing that their leader, Prime Minister Aznar, might be a candidate for the job of E.U. president, some Spanish papers gave cautious encouragement to the plan. Madrid’s centrist El Mundo (Jan. 17) said that Aznar would never have “a better opportunity” of achieving his dream of presiding over an enlarged Europe.

Writing in Hamburg’s liberal weekly Die Zeit (Jan. 16), former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said the proposal did not disguise a lack of direction in the Franco-German partnership. “The decision in favour of the European currency was the last joint act discussed by the countries’ leaders. Since then there has been an aimless policy with no direction. There is no substance in the talk of a Franco-German policy, and the same goes for a common security and foreign policy.” He added that the plan was an insufficient contribution to achieve enlargement.

In London’s liberal Guardian, (Jan. 17) columnist Martin Woollacott suggested that far from clearing up core differences between France and Germany, and thus removing obstacles to E.U. progress, the plan for two presidents just meant further delay. “France and Germany have merely postponed their differences over the proper shape of the European Union by agreeing to combine one change that would strengthen the Europe of the Nations, which France favors, and another that would favor the federal Europe, which Germany espouses.”

He said differences between France and Germany over agricultural policy and defense policy ran deep, as did differences over Iraq, and that such problems had just been put aside because of political need: in Schröder’s case, the need to make international headlines because of unpopularity at home, and in Chirac’s case, an opportunist move to promote the French international agenda at a time of weakness for both Schröder and Britain’s Tony Blair.

“Europe’s problems as it tries to reorganize itself politically at a time of international crisis over Iraq and perplexity over future relations with the U.S. are not likely to be made worse or better by truly concerted Franco-German policies,” he concluded. “Germany and France, as always, agree on a few things, and disagree on many things. The working out of these disagreements is enormously important to the future of Europe but it is precisely that working out which has once again been postponed.”

Even if seen as a vital contribution to discussions on the future shape of the E.U., for the moment the plan for two presidents seems a mere drop in the ocean of European disunity. The anniversary of the Elysée Treaty enabled Chirac and Schröder not just to reaffirm their commitment to playing a key role at the heart of Europe, but also to play up their supposed common position on Iraq. On this last issue, other leading European powers are making it increasingly plain that that they not going to follow Paris and Berlin. Chirac and Schröder will have to come up with more than new figureheads if they are to be the driving force of the stalled E.U. project.